The $3.3 million water bond vote will probably be up for a vote again after its defeat in March. I urge all citizens, particularly rate payers, to watch for informational meetings and to talk to your select board members about this. I am a strong opponent of this proposal because we do not have enough information. I spoke to hundreds of people both in the weeks before the vote and in the 12 hours I stood at the firehouse on Town Meeting day. I do not think that most people voted "no" because they thought that Southern Vermont College was the sole beneficiary.
I spoke to people struggling to pay water bills that have been raised 41 percent over the past three years. People who want to know where and how their money is going to be spent. No one has even dared to talk about sewer rates, no doubt projected to increase. What will an increase in water pressure do to the sewer system infrastructure? Before we start pricing people out of the community let’s make sure we have looked at every option and every consequence, transparently, so that the community, or more specifically the water users, can weigh in either directly or through our elected officials.
I urge the select board to think differently. You are also the water board. No questions placed before the town manager and the water department should be brushed off as unimportant. Town employees work for the select board and the citizens. Support the expertise of others on your board and get the answers fully. We have elected you to hear and transmit all the facts, to ask questions and give us an opportunity to weigh in on decisions before they are made.
What are other alternatives to this proposal? There needs to be information about why the hospital is not contributing. We want to hear facts about the possibility of using smaller pumping stations closer to the problem areas. There needs to be information about what would be involved in doing it in stages since the town portion does not have the same deadlines as the college. And there need to be broader answers than cost and interest rates.
We need more information about why the town’s share of the SVC part is so high when they clearly have urgent water issues. I do not feel that eligibility for a lower interest rate and an easement on wetlands are enough to justify the town’s offer to pay half. Will the projected revenue from SVC be used to fund this bond directly? We homeowners pay for our own connections. There needs to be clear information about what reserves will be able to be tapped and how money will be saved and put in reserve over the next few years from the water increases and how they will impact the cost to water users when the bond comes due. Finally, there needs to be discussion about how this project will impact development on Monument Avenue Ext., currently open fields. Is this something the community is prepared for? Who will benefit from this expansion of municipal water?
The primary fact is that for most citizens the current water rates are very difficult. Vague or variable answers about costs to the users will not get this passed. We want a plan in place that discusses future increases, since the promise there would be no increases "for a while" was made just last year. I hope that the select board/water board will approach this as if it were a business (which it is) and make sure that every question is asked and answered fully, every dollar of our money is budgeted, planned and allotted in advance of any vote and that all other options are explored in public.
I urge the select board to reassess the town charter now, as part of this bond discussion, because those facts and ideas may influence the vote. I continue to take issue with the fact that all citizens, regardless of whether they pay a water bill, can vote on whether my water bill increases. As I have stated repeatedly the existence of municipal water enhances the community by allowing us to have hospitals, businesses, schools, fire hydrants, etc. We do not expect that only people with school-age children should pay for the school, we cannot expect that a water system should only be paid for by the people who have it in their homes and businesses. The entire community has no choice but to support a water system. A bond vote that expands the infrastructure should be a community expense. I am prepared to pay for my water/sewer use but a project of this size benefits the larger community, not specifically the water users.
When planning future informational meetings I offer a few suggestions. No one wants to hear from the college about their needs. No one wants to hear that the state will mandate a solution to the pressure issue in a few years. We get that. We want to hear is how the burden on rate payers can be lessened. We want to hear other solutions to the pressure issue. We want to hear how the select board and the town are budgeting for these updates. And we want to hear 21st-century solutions to funding municipal water.
Abby Shapiro is a Bennington resident.