$9.85m sewer bond vote set

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BENNINGTON — Voters will be asked in October to approve a $9.85 million bond to pay for upgrades to the town's sewer plant.

The latest estimated total project cost is down from an $11 million figure reported earlier this year. And a preliminary study presented in 2012 estimated it would cost about $17 million, a number later reduced to $13 million. But even with the town expected to save up to $4 million by doing work in-house and some state financing available,the project is still expected to raise the sewer rate by about $37 per quarter.

Select Board members on Monday discussed whether a proposal for the aging wastewater treatment facility went far enough and if a full, so-called "comprehensive upgrade" is needed. Members ultimately voted unanimously to hold a bond vote on Oct. 10. A public hearing will be held Oct. 2.

The Harrington Road facility is well maintained and operated, according to Wayne Elliot, engineer with Aldrich & Elliott of Waterbury. The project would satisfy a state legal order that would bring consistent compliance with the discharge permit — preventing future fines and ensuring the quality of the Walloomsac River — while increasing energy and operational efficiency, he said during a presentation to members.

"Typically, a lot of the equipment we're talking about — pumps, electrical, mechanical, HVAC — has a lifespan of about 20 years," he said. "This equipment served the town very well up until about 2015. As long as it's well maintained, you can can get upwards of 25 years. But when you start to approach 30 years, you start getting into issues... You don't want to put money into something that's near the end of its useful life."

An "assurance of discontinuance" from the state Department of Environmental Conservation requires the town fix 30-year-old rotating biological contactor (RBC) units. The legal order came after breakdowns last summer interrupted the treatment process and led to sewage not being aerated, leading to multiple wastewater discharge violations as well as foul odors.

The project would increase the quarterly flat sewer rates by $37.83 — from the $95.44 fiscal 2018 rate that Select Board members set last month to $133.27. The annual cost to ratepayers would increase from $382 to $533.

If the town doesn't comply with the state's order, it could face "some hefty, severe fines," Elliot said. He indicated those fines could be enough to raise the sewer rates regardless.

Parts of the facility date back over 50 years: Headworks, tanks, and some buildings were constructed in 1962. The majority of the plant was built in 1985 when it was overhauled to include a secondary treatment process with RBCs. A compost facility was built in 1990.

The project would be split into two separate contracts, Elliot said. A general contractor would carry out some $5.3 million in various upgrades across the plant. Staff with the town's public works department would replace 30 of the plant's 32 RBC units, along with 18 new drive motors, new fiberglass covers, and associated electrical upgrades, $4.092 million project.

"If that work were done by general contractor, it would be up to $7 or $8 million," Elliot said.

That the town could save $3 to $4 million "seems too good to be true," member Carson Thurber said. "I hope I'm wrong. It sounds great, but it's something that instantly makes me wonder."

Town Manager Stu Hurd and Elliot both noted town employees have experience with the RBCs, having replaced some units and gearboxes over the past year.

"In some ways, staff may be more capable than contractors," Elliot said.

Board members several years ago put treatment facility improvements on the back burner. And members this week stressed they didn't want to delay taking action on a big-ticket item.

Vice-chairman Donald Campbell said he worried about other communities going for full upgrades and questioned why Bennington doesn't do the same.

Elliot said the project doesn't call for replacing the composting facility, which was rebuilt in 2004, as well as some interior equipment like 30-year-old tanks, which he said should last another 20 years. Other projects around the state have cost between $25 and $30 million.

"Are we kicking the can down the road with this project," Chairman Tom Jacobs wondered. "Is this something we have comfort that we won't come back in another five years, and the community will say, why are we doing this again?"

Hurd said the project would keep the plant operating within its discharge permit, while being manageable for tax and rate payers. Any future upgrades could be built into the annual budget.

If voters approve the bond, demolition and installation of the RBC units would begin by mid-April, Elliot said. For the upgrade project, final design would start in November and the project would be put out to bid in April. Construction would begin in June and be completed in September.

Reach staff writer Edward Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111 or @edamon_banner.

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