WVN #442: Water issues for Town Meeting
- Dear Wayland Voter,
For many years residents took the town's water service for granted. Turn the tap and you got excellent water at a negligible price.
Recently the price has skyrocketed as quality problems increased. In 2008 Town Meeting voters approved a plan to fold the water department into a new Department of Public Works with the aim of saving money. Still, a typical user's bill has increased by more than a factor of five since 2006.
At the 2012 Town Meeting beginning on April 9 voters may have the chance to consider a major change in accounting for water reserves that now amount to more than $3 million.
Also in this newsletter:
-- WayCAM is once again broadcasting live.
-- Wayland's first Habitat for Humanity project goes before Town Meeting voters.
SURPLUS WATER FUNDS UP FOR VOTE
Town Meeting voters may be asked whether to make water reserves an enterprise fund, which would operate as a kind of stand-alone business rather than be merged with other town money. A water enterprise fund would support only water services. In the past, water reserves have been used for such things as lessening the size of tax overrides.
On Jan. 17 the Board of Public Works reported a balance of $3.3 million in water reserves.
The Department of Public Works justifies the large amount in part by saying a consultant recommends holding in cash the cost of its most expensive asset. Chris Brown, Board of Public Works chairman and a candidate for selectman, reported the department plans to spend $1.4 million of that surplus in Fiscal 2013, leaving $1.9 million in reserve, a bit less than the replacement cost of the Reeves Hill water supply tank.
Best Management Practices?
The town commissioned Abrahams Group consultants to study town finances and recommend best management practices.
The Abrahams January 2011 water rate study report is posted on the town website:
On page 3 the Fund Balance section shows Abrahams recommending best practices for operating and capital reserves. The report called for a best practices operating reserve of 25% of budget (it was over 100% at close of FY11) and a capital reserve at $400,000, for "the most costly capital asset that might be replaced on an emergency basis ($400,000 for a well replacement)."
At the Jan. 3, 2012 joint meeting of the selectmen and Board of Public Works, officials discussed the unusually high water reserves. http://waycamtv.pegcentral.com/player.php?video=4165be413ac18d909ba8a4e71caecef6
Both BOPW chairman Brown and DPW Director Don Ouellette apparently interpreted Abrahams' best management practice recommendation from a year earlier to claim that a higher $2 to $2.5 million be held in reserve. That dollar amount is five to six times higher.
Brown suggested holding the larger $2 million as the cost of replacing the town's "largest capital item," identifying that as the Reeves Hill water storage tank. In reality the $10.5 million Baldwin water treatment plant is the town's most valuable water asset. If that is now the DPW's justification for holding onto high water surplus dollars, then why not stockpile $10.5 million in reserve? That does not seem to be what Abrahams intended by the recommended $400,000 capital reserve.
"Going Too Far" With Reserves?
A year ago, at a Feb. 8 water rate hearing, former water commissioner Joel Goodmonson provided opening remarks to give pre-DPW context to retained earnings. Regarding the notion of holding $2.5 million in capital reserve, he cautioned against "going too far with that."
At the Jan. 3, 2012 meeting with selectmen, DPW Director Ouellette reported that despite last summer's watering ban, the department also unexpectedly took in $900,000 more in water revenue than the year before. He attributed that to residents not obeying watering restrictions.
Ouellette also cited 2011 Town Meeting voters' use of $500,000 from free cash from a gasoline additive contamination legal settlement to pay for Cochituate water main improvements.
Ouellette repeated his preference to have $2 -2.5 million on hand in water capital reserve.
A Way to Lower Rates?
Both Ouellette and commissioner Mike Lowery alluded to the option of using the surplus to lower customer water rates at some point, but Ouellette also said they still don't know the full cost of operating the new Baldwin treatment plant. The plant came on line officially, per DEP approval, in February 2010, but Ouellette told selectmen it was not fully operational until July 2011.
He didn't publicly disclose until more recently that the Baldwin plant has been plagued by technical difficulties from iron-eating bacteria, which explains the heavier use of chlorine at Baldwin Well #3 and at the plant. It also seems to explain why the Baldwin Plant is shut down more often, why more residents can smell or taste increased chlorine use, why there are cost overruns for plant chemicals, and why the Happy Hollow Wells are still heavily relied upon for our water supply.
Both Town Administrator Fred Turkington and Ouellette alluded to possibly building a second water treatment plant in the future, for which Ouellette suggested money could be set aside in the Enterprise Fund.
Ouellette admitted the cash balance is too high. Then Chris Brown disclosed plans to use excess cash reserves to purchase wireless meter reading equipment and other capital items, but no second $10 million water treatment plant.
Ouellette reported the Finance Committee recommends spending water surplus dollars to fund his proposal for wireless water meter reading equipment costing $700,000, pending a cost analysis from consultant Mark Abrahams. The same equipment was previously rejected by May 2010 Town Meeting voters.
At its Feb. 27 meeting, the FinCom finally received from DPW Director Ouellette a communication from the Abrahams Group which he said explained the cost savings.
On Oct. 3, 2011 the BoPW had authorized Ouellette to proceed with getting a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis from Abrahams. Abrahams submitted his proposal on Dec. 30, 2011, and mindful of Wayland's capital budget schedule, indicated he would begin work within a week of receiving authorization from the Town.
By Feb. 7, with Ouellette on vacation and the BoPW unaware of what progress had been made, the Board asked Abrahams if he had been engaged to do the work and, if so, to please provide an update. Abrahams replied with his ROI analysis on Feb. 14.
At the Feb. 27 meeting, FinCom member Tom Greenaway made a motion to remove the water meter reading equipment from the capital budget, based on the DPW having had a year to make its case for the large expenditure. With the eleventh hour receipt of a cost analysis, there were some unresolved questions (e.g. security, privacy, abatements, new billing software, etc.), and there did not seem to be agreement on how long it might take for a return on the investment (perhaps up to 9 years). The FinCom ultimately voted to keep the request in the FY13 capital budget.
The FinCom voted, however, that same evening to remove the DPW's $200,000 requested North Cemetery expansion proposal from the FY13 capital budget. In recent weeks, memos were submitted to the FinCom and BoPW by members of the former Wellhead Protection Committee (now Waylandwells.com) expressing concerns about the groundwater transport of pathogens, toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals from 1,300 proposed new gravesites.
The North Cemetery expansion area is in the capture zone of the nearby Baldwin drinking water wells. The Waylandwells.com group recommended a capture zone study be done, as proposed years earlier after a study was completed for the Happy Hollow wells. The FinCom agreed and voted to fund such a study from Water Cash Capital.
In addition, the Historical Commission also requested that an archaeological survey of this historically significant area be done prior to any preparation of this site for use as a cemetery. The FinCom agreed and voted to fund such a study from Free Cash.
Other Water Expense Items in FY13
As proposed, the water reserves are also slated to pay for the next $500,000 installment of water pipe replacement. The town approved spending $500,000 last year to upgrade the water flow to the center of Cochituate.
Water capital is also listed as paying for the next round of DEP-recommended upgrades to well pumps, $100,000. Also on the list to be paid by water cash is heavy equipment that might be used exclusively by the water department or shared with DPW: $120,000 for two trucks with snow packages, and $140,000 for a backhoe. Some voters may ask whether the water fees should be used for equipment that may be shared.
The DPW itself is asking for $565,000 for two trucks with snow packages, a utility body with snow package, refurbishing a vehicle to a swap loader, and a front end loader and trackless sidewalk plow. $295,000 is slated to be borrowed.
Some might say that after the fall Town Meeting, where voters appropriated surplus free cash towards the FY12 operating budget (essentially taking back overtaxed dollars), the fear of a similar action by voters this spring may explain the sudden desire by the selectmen, DPW and Finance Committee to establish a Water Enterprise Fund, which they repeatedly opposed in years past, in order to lock up all existing water surplus monies.
Selectman Joe Nolan has recommended using clear visuals to make their case simply to April Town Meeting voters.
The Board of Public Works has advertised a public forum for 7:05 p.m. Monday, March 5 to explain its wireless meter reading equipment proposal.
-- Linda Segal
WAYCAM BROADCASTING LIVE AGAIN
WayCAM, the town's public access cable channel, is once again broadcasting live after a complicated move to new quarters at the new high school.
Live programming includes Board of Selectmen and School Committee meetings (both at 7 p.m. on Mondays) plus Sports Update, Wayland Weekly and Ask the Rep.
WayCAM broadcasts on Comcast channels 8,9 and 99 and Verizon channels 37, 38 and 39.
Residents may also view any taped programs at their leisure online at
www.waycam.tv (click on WayCAM Video on Demand archive)..
You can also sign up for updates and other information at: www.waycam.tv
For information on classes and training, contact station manager Jim Mullane (jim@...).
To request recording services, contact production assistant Nick Cosky: nick@...
HABITAT PROJECT VOTE AT TM
Wayland's first affordable housing project under the aegis of Habitat for Humanity seeks the approval of April Town Meeting voters.
Wayland's Community Preservation Committee voted to provide $356,000 with the proviso that project volunteers raise $206,000 toward the 4-unit development on Stonebridge Road. Town Meeting voters must approve the plan.
One fund-raising effort by the Wayland Habitat for Humanity Community is selling 600 building blocks that will be used for the project. Pay for insulated concrete forms ($75, or two for $125) and you'll have the chance to set them in place during construction.
More information: Mary Antes (508-358-2571) or Dan Sharry (508-358-3524 or dan.sharry@...).
More volunteer help is needed.
Donations can be made online at
or by mail to Habitat for Humanity/MetroWest/ Greater Worcester, 111 Park Avenue, Worcester, MA, 01609. Write "Wayland Project" in the memo line.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor