By the members of the Waitsfield Water Commission
To Waitsfield Select Board:
In 2008, the residents of Waitsfield voted to construct a municipal water system and in 2011 the select board adopted a water ordinance following a number of public meetings. There is a water service area defined in the ordinance that is bordered by Mill Brook to the south, Fayston to the west, Loop Road and the elementary school to the north and the Mad River to the east, primarily the Waitsfield Village District and Irasville Village District.
After six years, there still remains a lack of clarity among the townspeople, the select board, the water users and the water commission around the responsibilities and obligations of all parties.
Members of the select board made various comments and statements prior to the public vote in 2008, the essence of which can be attributed to two concepts: The construction and operations of water system would be 100 percent paid for by the water users and connecting to the water system in 2008 was on a voluntary basis.
These concepts suggest the select board's goal was to have the water commission as an autonomous body, running the operations of the water system and not relying on any public funds. Since the water system went online in late 2012, the debt service costs of $3.214 million and the operational costs have been solely paid for by the water users. But, in reality, it is not so simple. The system that was installed provides an adequate supply of superior potable water and a water supply for fire protection within the water service area of the town of Waitsfield.
As part of the operations of the community water system, the water commission maintains the fire hydrants, testing them, flushing the pipes and repairing the hydrants as necessary, in addition to providing water at the fire station to fill the fire trucks that service all of Waitsfield and Fayston. In 2012/2013 the commission worked with the fire department to update Waitsfield ISO rating, which is the rating the insurance companies use to assess the fire risk of your property. The rating was subsequently improved resulting in many properties in Waitsfield and Irasville village having their property insurance cost reduced by as much as 15 percent.
Clearly, the water system provides more than just water to the users. As background, the water system was originally designed with an 8-inch diameter main pipe, a 250,000-gallon main tank, and routed from Tremblay Road along Route 100 into Waitsfield Village. At a point in the process the select board voted to add fire protection elements to the design which required increasing the main pipe from 8- to 12-inch diameter, increasing the water tank from 250,000 gallons to 400,000 gallons, adding fire hydrants along the main pipe, and diverting the main pipe off Route 100 along Old County Road (Loop Road). The cost of this upgrade was over $1 million.
Since inception of the Waitsfield community water system the water users have not only paid for their water but also the town’s fire protection infrastructure and operations.
The recent legal settlement over the water line breakage by a VTrans subcontractor has again opened the dialogue of who should pay for what. The water pipe is an asset of the town. The town’s lawyers, instructed by the select board, with no input requested or allowed from the water commission, settled the case at a net cost to the town of $130,000 of which $80,000 was for legal services. At least one member of the select board expects the water users to pay 100 percent of the cost of this damage to town property. The mechanism to do this would be the town taking out a loan for $130,000 and having the water users pay it off over five to seven years.
There are three reasons why this thinking is flawed:
– Had the water users been represented by the water commission at the negotiations the outcome may have been different.
– This damage to the pipe was to a town asset. It was a one-time event similar to a flood or wind storm.
– It fails to recognize that the water users have already been burdened with additional debt service and operation expenses which are not related to the sole purpose of providing good, clean, safe drinking water.
The water commission believes that the town’s general fund should pay the cost associated with the water main break, but it is willing to offer the emergency water reserve fund not to exceed the amount of $14,198.48 as a gesture to resolving this issue.
In the future years, there will be other water matters that come before the select board and the question will be, is this a water system cost or a general fund cost?
The select board and water commission should review the future relationship between the two entities which could take the form of one of the following:
1. A memorandum of understanding that outlines operation procedures between the select board and the water commission.
2. A more detailed ordinance formalizing the procedures between the select board and the water commission.
3. Water Works – a stand-alone autonomous entity covered by Title 24: Municipal and County Government Chapter 89: Water Works.
4. Fire District – a stand-alone autonomous entity covered by Title 20: Internal Security and Public Safety Chapter 171: Fire Districts.
If the town requires the water users’ fees to cover the entire cost of running the community water system, then the water commission or similar body must be allowed the authority and responsibility to manage the water infrastructure appropriately.
The irony of the current arrangement is that water users are not paying 100 percent of the water system they use; they are paying closer to 150 percent as they subsidize the town’s fire protection.
The water commission looks forward to starting this dialogue.