Water project may have tipped election
By Brent Curtis
Staff Writer | March 11,2013
PROCTOR — Politics involving the town’s $6.1 million water project may have been too much for voters to swallow on Town Meeting Day.
By a landslide 200 to 95 vote, residents unseated Select Board Chairman Eric “Rick” Anderson and replaced him with Richard Horner, who served nine years on the board, some as chairman.
The Select Board has been rife with instability in recent years with multiple resignations and infighting. At town meeting in 2011, voters passed a nonbinding resolution calling for more civility at Select Board meetings.
That vote led the board to hire a mediator who by the end of August that year said she believed the five-member board was on the right path.
But friction in interactions between members and some residents who came to the meetings continued and a number of issues plagued the board.
“A lot of it just has to do with civility,” Horner said after the election. “People were going to meetings and not getting treated in an appropriate manner is the feedback I got.”
Reached by telephone on Saturday, Anderson declined to comment on the vote or other town matters.
At least some of the bad feelings at board meetings sprang from the board members’ handling of some issues and their frequent use of closed-door meetings to discuss some issues.
In an unsigned letter sent to most households in the community, more than a dozen complaints about the town’s government were listed.
The grievances ranged from claims that the town failed to install a dry hydrant at Beaver Pond to questions about why an unidentified town employee was allowed to work without a commercial driver’s license while other town employees were required to have theirs.
But the biggest concerns the anonymous pamphlet raised had to do with water and the town’s ongoing $6.1 million project to convert its surface water system to one that draws water from wells on Field Street.
Voters approved a bond to pay for that project in 2010. But since its approval, cost overruns have pushed the bottom line $1,609,793 million over budget, according to the most recent report submitted to the state Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division by the town.
But in the anonymous letter, which was discussed at town meeting, the cost to taxpayers is characterized as being more than twice that sum.
“It was implied federal/state grants were to be secured to pay portion of the cost reducing town share to approximately $3,164,777,” the letter reads. “The grant was never applied for as promised. We are not receiving any grant money.”
“We no longer have to pay back $3,164,777, we have to pay back the entire $6,164,777 million. What will the water bills be per year?” the letter continues.
The bills won’t change, according to Town Administrator Stan Wilbur, who said the annual payments for town water users is capped at $490 a year in accordance with a drinking water state revolving fund loan received by the town.
While the project is far over budget, town officials say they are working to trim the overrun and have the new water system operational by the Oct. 1 deadline imposed by the state.
Neither outcome is assured, but town and state officials overseeing the project say there’s some wiggle room to finish the work without repercussions from the state or federal government.
The town is under a federal mandate to improve its water system due to the high levels of chlorination byproducts produced by treating the surface water at the reservoir in Chittenden.
The town was supposed to have the work done by last October but was granted an extension to October 2013 after cost overruns approaching $1 million and complications with the work on the Field Street well house slowed work down.
Now, bids that came in $600,000 over budget on two other facets of the project have stalled the project again and prompted the board recently to terminate all but one of its contracts with Marble Valley Engineering, which had overseen the project from the start, according to Wilbur and town reports.
“There were a lot of reasons, but I’m not at liberty to say what they were but they were dissatisfied,” Wilbur said of the board’s reasons for firing the engineers.
He said at least some of the board’s frustration with the firm related to the engineers’ progress redesigning the project. The board had hoped to have new designs so they could seek lower bids at the start of the year, Wilbur said.
“It just didn’t seem to progress rapidly,” Wilbur said. “Here it is March and we thought we would be out to bid in January and we’re not there yet.”
The town is now seeking a new engineering firm to redesign the project. When it will be ready to go to bid is unknown.
Completion of the project and the elimination of byproducts from the drinking water is first and foremost on the minds of state overseers like Ellen Parr Doering, assistant director of the Drinking Water and Groundwater Division.
Sanctions or punitive measures are a possibility if the town doesn’t meet its October deadline, she said.
But any punishments would be handed down by a state judge, she said, and the decision would be influenced by what the town does during the next seven months.
“There’s the option of going back to the court and saying that they’re in contempt,” Parr Doering said. “But if there’s a schedule and an assurance of discontinuance it might not come to that.”
Parr Doering said the state will be especially interested in what the town does in the near future and will be looking for a plan to move forward by early summer.
Proctor Selectman Vincent Gatti said the board hoped to divide the remaining water projects up to lower their costs and to hire a new engineer soon.
Asked about the complaints made in the letter, Gatti characterized the mailing as an “act of spineless cowards” and he contended that much of the information contained in the mailing was incorrect.
The complaint about the $3,164,777 grant, for example, was wrong, he said.
While the board at one time considered applying for those funds, he said the town was excluded from receiving the money after water users in Pittsford who are connected to the Proctor water system filed a lawsuit against the municipality.
At that point, Gatti said the town pursued the revolving loan fund, which was given to the town with a negative 1.9 percent interest rate. Over the course of the 30-year life of the loan, the town will pay back only $4,516,657 of the $6,164,777 it borrowed, according to town records.
The $3 million grant would have been a better deal for the town – reducing the anticipated annual household water bill to $463, Gatti said. But when the grant ceased to be an option the town moved on.
“These people transposed the projected cost versus the funding opportunity we had,” Gatti said, referring to the unsigned letter. “We were always going to move forward with either one of two options on the table. The grant money was our first choice but it came off the table due to litigation. That’s when we moved ahead with the revolving loan.”
While board members have been critical of the letter — Anderson said at town meeting that it contained “rumors, half-truths and personal agendas” designed to “undermine your Select Board” — at least some of the information contained in it has proven true.
For example, a statement in the letter that the town plans to build a salt shed in a sandpit near the Field Street wells was partially confirmed by Anderson, who said at town meeting the site was under consideration and the town is negotiating with OMYA Inc. to buy it.
The Select Board is scheduled to meet again today with the selection of a new chairman as one of the items on its agenda.
Gatti said he plans to move forward with a sense of optimism.
“The best I can say is everyone on the board is trying to do what’s best for the town,” Gatti said.