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At Emergency meeting Waitsfield Select Board continues water system review

At an emergency meeting of the Waitsfield Select Board this week, the board had a wide-ranging and sometimes contentious discussion with a few raised voices, but ultimately achieved consensus on issues related to the town's municipal water system.

The board met on November 4 for an emergency meeting after learning that the action it took at a previous meeting regarding a member of the water commission was incorrect. At its previous meeting, the board accepted the resignation of a member of the water commission who had not resigned, although his term expires this month. That member, Robin Morris, was not at this week's select board meeting.

The select board spent this week's meeting discussing how certain aspects of the water system were originally proposed, how the specifics of this system were created, how the billing system is working and could work better and whether or not it might be appropriate for all the town's taxpayers to help fund a portion of the costs of the system, or at least the cost of maintaining the fire hydrants.

This week's meeting opened with some raised voices when board member Bill Parker asked about the point of the meeting and whether it was to discuss the water task force.

Board member Chris Pierson said that the board had heard Morris say that he did not want to serve on the water commission if he "had to be answerable to us."

"That's not what I heard him say," said Parker.

"I heard him say he was not accountable or subject to questions from us," Pierson said.

"We're getting on thin ice here," said board chair Paul Hartshorn.

By state statute it is the water commissioners of a municipal water project who set policies such as how billing is determined and how debt service is collected and how overages are dealt with.

Waitsfield's water commission includes two members of the select board, Bill Parker and Scott Kingsbury. The terms of two other commissioners, Robin Morris and Ray LaRochelle, expire on November 11. Peter Reynells is the fifth commissioner and has one more year to serve.

Board member Logan Cooke said that one goal of the emergency meeting was to ask Morris to be present to answer questions about the water project.

"So if the idea was to have Robin here for questions and he's not here, why are we here?" Parker said.

"Are you saying that there is information that only Robin has?" Parker asked to which Pierson said that he had tried to get answers to questions about the system and Morris did not answer them. At the meeting October 14, Pierson is referring to, Morris was present and gave the select board an update on the system and did answer questions from the board for almost an hour.

At issue for some members of the board is the fact that the billing system for Waitsfield's water system is based on ERU (equivalent residential units – or the amount of water that a three bedroom home will use daily) rather than metered water usage.

The ERU designations for all properties on the system (and potentially on the system), were assigned in 2006 by former project manager Michael Cunningham. ERUs were based on septic capacity for properties where the septic capacity was known.

When the water system went live last January, the plan had been to collect a year's worth of usage data and then revisit the issue of billing based on ERUs. Under the current system, debt for the project as well as ongoing maintenance is allocated per ERU with system users allowed to use a certain number of gallons per month. Users who go over their monthly allotment pay $6 per 1,000 gallons of water.

Board members Kingsbury, Pierson and Cooke spoke of being frustrated when members of the public complain to them about the costs of the water system or the billing methods or an inaccurate ERU assignment.

Parker said that if the select board wanted to do the job of the water commissioners then it should dissolve that commission and do the job. He went on to explain how the commission had been working on the tricky question of how to make the billing fair and said that the plan is to create a method of "true up" so that people who paid for more water than they were using were credited in terms of their debt service and maintenance fees and vise versa for those who paid for less than they should have.

He said that the commissioners were working on questions of fairness, i.e., should the new owner of Egan's be paying for maintenance and debt service when he wasn't using a drop of water.

"And do we make people start paying for their full ERU assignment of water – or wait a year to see how much they use and then pay after the fact? What do we do if a property changes hands?" Parker asked.

He said that the water commissioners had been working hard at how to make the water system functional, affordable, accountable and fair as well as self-supporting and said that it was difficult work for volunteers.

"Sometimes volunteers just say enough is enough – because they are volunteers and if we don't respect our volunteers," said Parker before being interrupted by Pierson who said, "We're volunteers."

"Then we won't have any," Parker finished.

"If you guys really want to do some screwing down of screws on people I'd rather see us go after the contractors. If there's going to be witches to be hunted here I would say going after the volunteers is the last thing we want to do because we won't have volunteers to do the jobs we can't," Parker said.

"I'm sad to see Robin go after all his time and knowledge and work," he added.

"Nobody said we don't need his help. It's a matter of some of us are new and need to understand what's going on and to do that we needed to ask some questions and when we can't get answers, it's hard. It's also a matter of fairness. At what point is it fair for us to send people the right water bill?" Kingsbury asked.

"You come to the water commission meetings, you know that's been a big topic of discussion and continues to be the focus of the group to find out how to structure the way ERUs are calculated against actual usage. We've talked about how to make that as fair as possible and when to do that leveling to allow updating and the ability to understand the cost of the system. There are a lot of things we don't know yet," Parker said.

"We're writing the book as we go here, trying to make a system that is fair," he added.

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# Town AdministratorValerie Capels 2013-11-07 20:10
Point of clarification: Municipal Project Manager Michael Cunningham worked with the project engineers and municipal staff from 2006 to 2008 to inventory properties in the service area and develop ERU allocations at that time.
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