BENNINGTON -- Residents had many questions about a proposed $3 million water bond vote coming up next week.
Jason Dolmetsch, an engineer with MSK Engineering, the firm that is planning the project, said the goal behind it is to solve water pressure issues at high elevations on the south end of town that occur during fires and other times of high water use.
He said the state has mandated the problem be solved by Dec. 1, 2018. If it is not, fines can be levied or the state can forbid new hookups or allocations.
Voters already rejected a $3.3 million proposal in March that called for building a 750,000-gallon water tank at the high end of the Southern Vermont College campus and running a water line to a pump station near the college's athletic fields. The college would go on the town's water supply and bear some of the cost. The college's involvement also allows the town access to a state revolving loan fund which would allow the town to borrow at a 3 percent interest rate rather than a 3.5 percent one.
The new plan is largely the same, only it involves running the main line on a more direct route through the college's campus.
Dolmetsch said the college has no issues with its water currently, but the state is requiring more stringent testing and filtering systems for its wells. It will have to solve its problem sooner than the town must address its own requirements, which is why the town is opting to go forward now, with the college, rather than later.
The tower will hold water at a certain elevation and release it into the system when the pressure is needed, said Dolmetsch. There have been six occasions since Jan. 1 where at least one person reported low water pressure or no water. One was the fire at the former LaFlamme's' furniture store, the others involved water being pumped up Willow Road, and hydrant flushings.
In response to a question from resident Ed Letourneau about there being hard data beyond anecdotes, Dolmetsch said there are pressure sensors on the lines and computer models that confirm the pressure drops bellow state standards at certain times.
Water Superintendent Terry Morse said these pressure issues have been happening since his tenure began in the 1980s. In response to a question from Bennington resident Chris Wright, Morse said the system was allowed to expand past its capacity. Such expansion would not likely be allowed today, or if allowed then the entity responsible would have to pay for necessary upgrades.
Resident Abby Shapiro asked how well the town could guarantee its water rate projections for the next five years.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said there will be no rate increase this year, and in the coming years the town does not expect to see more than a 3 percent increase in a given year. He said the 41 percent increase spread over the past three years was because depreciation of the system was not being accounted for.
Board member Sharyn Brush said the board oversees the department's proposed budgets and works diligently to keep them down as much as possible.
Dolmetsch said if the project goes through with the college's help, the annual repayments on the bond, which do not start until two years after the project is complete, will be $36,400 less. Over 20 years, the town would save $728,000.
Eric Law, program specialist with the state Water Infrastructure Financing Program, said funds in the revolving loans are limited and competition is heavy, but SVC's involvement puts Bennington in the fundable range.
"I can tell you one thing, this problem is not going away," he said. "You have to ask yourself the question, is it cheaper now to deal with it than to wait four years? I can tell you, being in financing, it's going to be a whole lot cheaper now than it will be in four years."
The vote is June 17 at the Bennington Fire Facility located at 130 River Street. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voting will also be at the North Bennington Village Trustees Office for voters in the village.
One of the criticisms against the bond was that all registered voters had a say, but payments only to rate payers. Town officials explained that there used to be a tax credit for those not on the system, back when water was paid for out of the general fund, but a change to the town charter many years ago holds that only rate payers fund the system. Still, collateral for the bond would be town property, so all registered voters can cast ballots.
Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.