WHITINGHAM — Two big-ticket items to be considered in town this year involve major sewer upgrades and a new town garage.
Voters are being asked if the town should borrow up to $3,915,000 for “a complete rehabilitation” of wastewater treatment facilities in Jacksonville and Whitingham. Both buildings would be brought up to modern code with improvements to insulation, ventilation and lighting to make them more energy efficient, according to the latest town report.
“All of the process equipment will be replaced, providing a new 20-year service life and reduced repair costs,” the Select Board said in the report. The collection system also would be improved so the plants only treat sewage instead of rainwater or groundwater.
Voters will be deciding on the sewer bond and other articles via ballot by March 2. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, in-person annual Town Meeting isn’t being held this year.
The town entered into the second of three phases for sewer improvements last year, according to the report. Engineers began a final design of the project anticipated to include drawings, specifications, probable costs, construction bid documents and a draft contract for the build.
The Select Board said no concerns about the impact of the project were raised by the state in reviews regarding historic preservation, the environment and hazardous materials.
“Our biggest hurdle and uncontrollable concern was getting a majority of sewer users to respond to the Median Household Income survey,” the board said, calling the survey “extremely important” in determining funding eligibility for construction.
The survey will inform efforts to get a subsidy via the Vermont State Revolving Loan Fund Program, which is estimated to provide a savings of up to $800,000 to $1 million. The program requires the town to get voter approval even though the cost will be borne only by those connected to the wastewater plants in Jacksonville or Whitingham, according to the report.
The board reported hearing many complaints about sewer rate increases.
“Our two wastewater facilities have been in service for 40 years and require refurbishment,” the board said. “These costs are unavoidable and will prevent future treatment system failures, adverse impacts to the environment, unexpected emergency wastewater hauling costs and potential fines. We have worked with our engineers to keep the scope of refurbishment as small as possible, keeping the wastewater facilities mostly as they are, and making improvements to improve energy and treatment efficiency.”
The board said two recent rate increases along with an anticipated increase next year will cover the cost of future bond payments and build a capital improvements fund “so that the sewer department and its users are not in this predicament again.”
“On the bright side,” the board said, “sewer users have been paying very low rates for nearly 40 years.”
The facilities were built in the early 1980s and performed way beyond expectations, but repair costs are beginning to rise, according to the report. In 2018, the failure of a larger piece of equipment in the Jacksonville Plant called a rotating biological contactor required a shutdown of the facility while repairs were made.
“Sewage that continued to flow to the Jacksonville [plant] had to be pumped and hauled to Brattleboro for disposal,” the board said.
The repair and hauling costs added up to almost $100,000 and depleted a reserve fund, according to the report. The board said afterwards, the state required the town to conduct an analysis of the two facilities to see what components were at risk for failure and needed to be replaced.
The board called wastewater treatment facilities “a crucial piece of municipal infrastructure that protects the environment and fosters economic growth.”
“Craft brewers often look to villages with municipal treatment plants for locations as their wastewater is more easily treated by a WWTF than with an onsite septic system (ie: leach field),” the board said.
The Whitingham Highway Garage Committee was created in January 2020 and funded with $50,000 approved by voters at annual Town Meeting in March 2020, according to the report.
“The committee engaged an engineering firm to do a feasibility study on the current garage,” the committee said in the report. “The study found the garage structure to be inadequate for the future needs of the Highway Department and in very poor condition. It also found the current site to be inadequate for the growth of the garage required to meet future needs.”
The committee said after considering eight other parcels, members ultimately recommended seeking voter approval to purchase the Twitchell Farm, a 12-acre parcel at 1177 Town Hill Road for $20,000 contingent on obtaining permits. Another article seeks to raise and appropriate $50,000 for the Town Garage Fund.
“If the voters approve and fund the purchase of the Twitchell farm,” the committee said, “the next steps on this project include engaging an engineering firm to do a design plan for the lot with estimated construction costs, followed eventually by building concept, design and then construction.”