BENNINGTON -- The Town Manager and Select Board fielded questions from people not happy about a $3.3 million water bond going before voters next week that will cause water rates to rise.
The project involves building a pump station at the lower end of Southern Vermont College's campus which will move water up a hill, supplying the college with town water and filling a 750,000-gallon water tank that will address pressure issues at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center along with the Crescent Boulevard and Jefferson Heights neighborhoods.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the state is urging the college to go on town water, and in a few years the state will also be forcing the town's hand when it comes to solving the water pressure concerns. By sharing costs with the college, the town gets a priority listing on a low-interest state revolving loan fund.
Voters will go the polls on March 4.
"Currently you are only asking the water ratepayers, which are only a percentage of the community, to pay for this," said Abby Shapiro, of Bennington.
Shapiro said it was two years ago that the board claimed water rates would no longer rise. Over the past three years, the rates have gone up 10 percent, 12 percent, and 15 percent, or 41 percent when compounded, according to Shapiro.
"And now we're putting out a bond that everybody in the community gets to vote on that only affects the pocket books of the ratepayers," she said.
Repayments on the bond would not begin until two years after the project is completed. Hurd said the annual payment is estimated at $230,000 with the town paying $180,000 and the college paying $50,000.
Hurd said those paying the flat rate will see their annual water cost up by $35, assuming the board does nothing to lower the water budget. Those on meters should see their rate going to $4.44 per thousand gallons if nothing is cut.
In response to a question by board member John McFadden, Hurd said it's estimated that the cost of the project, without SVC's help, would be between $300,000 and $400,000 more than it's expected to now, plus the town would not get a priority listing for the revolving loan even if the state was forcing the issue.
"We are paying 78 percent for this project," said Shapiro, adding that the number of people experiencing water pressure problems is low.
"Let me just ask you a question, Abby," said board Vice Chairwoman Sharyn Brush, "We're mandated by the state to fix the system right now, because of the pressure problems at the higher elevations, so do you want to pay less for it now or do you want to wait until we absolutely have to do it and can't take advantage of the partnership and the low-interest money?"
Shapiro indicated her issue is mainly how the cost is being divided. "I think it's an elaborate project and we're paying way too much for our share," she said. "I think it needs to be spread out amongst more people instead of just the ratepayers. I don't mind paying for my usage, but anybody who is part of the community benefits."
According to Hurd, the burden has to fall on ratepayers because of the town's charter. He said the Village of Bennington merged with the Town of Bennington in 1969. The village owned the water system and after the merger it was decided that those not hooked up would get a discount on their property taxes. As property values were reassessed, the discount became greater and in the early 1980s voters opted to change the charter so that the water system would be funded by the ratepayers.
"That was the last century," said Shapiro. "This is a new century and an opportunity for the Select Board to think differently and come up with a change that works for 2014."
Robert James Reynolds, of Bennington, also spoke, restating an idea he presented to the board at its last meeting. Reynolds said water from the "White Rocks" on Bald Mountain could be harnessed and used to solve the pressure issues. He claimed Morgan Spring is fed from there.
Hurd said Reynolds' plan is not feasible for a number of reasons. One is the state requires drinking water to be treated whether it is pure or not. He said the water still needs to be moved uphill to a tank in order to solve the pressure issues, and that Morgan Spring is in fact fed from Mount Anthony.
Reynolds also claims the project being proposed will cost closer to $5 million.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.