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<B>Bennington residents head to the polls Tuesday to vote on the water bond./Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner/photos.benningtonbanner.com</B>
Bennington residents head to the polls Tuesday to vote on the water bond./Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner/photos.benningtonbanner.com
Bennington residents head to the polls Tuesday to vote on the water bond./Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner/photos.benningtonbanner.com

BENNINGTON -- Voters passed a $3 million water bond Tuesday, with 379 voting "yes" and 225 voting "no."

The bond is to pay for a project that involves partnering with Southern Vermont College to build a 750,000-gallon water tank and a pump station to solve water pressure issues the state has mandated the town fix by 2018.

The project calls for water to be pumped across the SVC campus to the tank where it would be stored for times when there is high usage, such as during a fire. The town's water operating permit, issued by the Agency of Natural Resources, requires the town to address pressure issues in the Crescent Boulevard/Jefferson Heights area or face penalties.

"I feel very good," said Town Manager Stuart Hurd Tuesday as the vote results were announced. "I like to think the effort we put into the second hearing turned some people."

The Select Board floated the bond at Town Meeting Day in March and it was defeated by a wide margin. The original bond request was for $3.3 million. Engineers cut costs by planning to run the line between the pump station and water tower across SVC's campus, recognizing that such a move may make maintaining it difficult in 20 or so years.

Hurd said it's doubtful much construction will be done on the project this year, if any. The state will be notified the bond has passed, and the town may wish to wait until winter to put it out for bid, looking to get the best price.

It's estimated the project will cost $2.87 million.

The college has agreed to pay about 20 percent of the project cost, and would become a water customer. The state has been putting pressure on the college to go on municipal water. Currently SVC pays for its wells to be tested for contaminants, but state requirements are making that more onerous.

By partnering with SVC, Bennington's project qualifies for a low-interest loan fund which Hurd and engineers from MSK Engineering say will reduce costs in the long run. They also said if the bond fails now, the college will have to go ahead with fixing its own situation, leaving the town to pay more when the time comes.

The state fund loans at a rate of 3 percent while other sources reported their rate would be 3.5 percent.

After the first vote failed, the board tried to trim costs from the project and make a better case for its need to the public.

Many criticized the plan because water rates have risen 41 percent over the last three years. Hurd explained that was because depreciation of the system was not being accounted for. Now that it has, there will be no increase in water or sewer rates this year, and within the next five years they should not rise more than 3 percent in a given year, he said.

Others were critical of the fact that while only rate payers pay water system expenses, all registered voters could cast ballots over the bond. Such was not the case many years ago, but a change to the town charter put the responsibility to those who use the system. Furthermore, because town property is technically collateral for the bond, all registered voters have a stake in it.

North Bennington voters could also cast ballots, and 23 did. Of those, 14 voted "yes" and nine voted "no." They are included in the above tally.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.