Why I support taxpayer contribution to the water system

  • Published in MyView

By Anne Bordonaro

I wish to share why I started out as an opponent of any taxpayer contribution to the Waitsfield water system and became a proponent of such a contribution. The water system as initially proposed in 2008 by the select board was to be paid for entirely by the water users. This was the basis for the public vote, which eventually resulted in approval and creation of the Waitsfield Community Water System.

When the issue of paying for the 2014 water main break caused by the state arose during my first year on the Waitsfield Select Board, my initial response was that the town has no liability or responsibility to share in that cost because of the terms of the bond vote. However, I soon learned that, at the insistence of the select board members at the time, the water system engineer made changes to the design of the system to enable it to enhance the town’s fire protection capabilities by providing water pressure capacity for town hydrants. Such changes included a larger circumference pipe, extending the lines up Old County Road, and adding hydrants and a larger storage tank. These additions represented 21 percent of the total design and construction cost of the project, according to the project engineers.

No provision was ever made by the select board to cover those costs or to fund the extra operations and maintenance costs associated with maintaining the capacity (which also included annual flushing of the hydrants, etc.). The water users have been paying those extra costs for the past five years with the rest of town taxpayers (including me) essentially free-riding on their backs. Therefore, after careful consideration, I came to believe that all town taxpayers, including those such as myself who are not connected to the system, are beneficiaries of the system and it is only fair that we collectively pay a share of its ongoing costs related to fire protection.

Based on the 21 percent additional cost of the fire protection upgrades and the five years of the town’s noncontribution toward those costs, the select board recently agreed to share the water main break repair costs incurred because of the break caused by the state with the Waitsfield Water Commission. Looking ahead, we also agreed to put in place a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the town and the water commission to codify responsibilities, with regard to the system, which includes developing a response protocol for dealing with future emergencies going forward as well as apportioning costs in a fair and equitable manner. A subcommittee constituting two select board members, Paul Hartshorn and me, two water commission members, Robin Morris and Jack Himmelsbach, and Trevor Lashua, the new town administrator, met several times to develop the MOU. The MOU was discussed and agreed to by the full water commission on December 14, 2017, and in turn, by the select board on December 18, 2017, conditioned on review by the town’s attorney.

The system when first built assigned proportional responsibility for its cost to each user based on something called an ERU (equivalent residential unit, a common measure of capacity), which roughly equates to estimated usage based upon wastewater capacity of a single-family house. The original number of ERUs with the system was 220. Using the 21 percent of system costs attributable to fire protection, the MOU calls for the town to be assigned 44 ERUs or 20 percent of original system ERUs.

The majority of system costs are fixed; they constitute the debt service over 40 years for design and building of the system, with a relatively smaller additional amount for contributions to emergency and operational reserve funds. Therefore, as the number of water users increases, the number of ERUs increases, in turn reducing the cost to each user. In FY19 the system will be comprised of 296 ERUs. Therefore, in FY19, the town’s 44 ERUs would now represent only 14 percent of the annual system cost. In FY19, that would equate to a town contribution of $655 per ERU x 44 ERUs. The cost per ERU will continue to decrease as the number of users continues to increase. (There is a ceiling to the system’s capacity to expand, based on the amount of water available. However, at present, after the addition of Lawson’s, the system will only be at 27 percent of capacity.)

Moving forward, I hope all Waitsfield taxpayers will agree that this is a reasonable solution to a difficult problem. I think it makes sense for two primary reasons:

  1. Every resident and business owner, regardless of where they live in town, benefits from the fire department’s ability to easily access a steady supply of water that flows out at high pressure. As Paul Hartshorn reported the other day, the fire department was able to fill its tanker in just 3 ½ minutes to fight the large explosive fire at Fred Viens’ shop on December 9. In firefighting, minutes matter. With climate change, we cannot count on always having a sufficient supply of water in the rivers and ponds year-round. Furthermore, connecting to a high-pressure hydrant is much faster than sucking water out of rivers and ponds.
  2. Having a good water system in the village and Irasville makes possible the business development we all rely on to maintain a healthy year-round economy. For example, along with the decentralized wastewater system, the water system enabled Lawson’s Finest to expand its operations in Waitsfield.

Moving forward, I hope the Fayston Select Board also will decide to share with us the cost of access to the water for fire protection, as they currently do with all other fire protection costs. As we saw with the Viens’ garage fire, we are one fire department and having access to a rapid and steady supply of high-pressure water benefits residents and business owners in both towns.

These are my views and do not represent an official position or statement of the Waitsfield Select Board.

Bordonaro recently stepped down from the Waitsfield Select Board.