New water rates pass in Chester as infrastructure problems are highlighted

By Shawn Cunningham

After more than six months of discussing the dire need to increase water rates to bring the Water and Sewer Department into the black, the Chester Select Board at its Wednesday, June 18 meeting suddenly – and with relatively little discussion – voted to adopt a new rate schedule for delivering water to the system’s 752 users. The vote followed an extensive presentation of an engineering report that detailed the weaknesses of Chester’s water system and the cost of upgrading.

The new rates are based on an “equivalent unit” of 18,000 gallons, with each unit (or fraction of a unit) billed at $40 plus $1 per 1,000 gallons. The current system has a $20 base rate and a $2.95 per 1,000 gallon charge. An average water customer uses about 210 gallons per day, or about 19,110 gallons per quarter, which under the current system would result in a charge of about $79. Under the new system, that “average use” would amount to two equivalent units costing $80, plus approximately $20 for the per gallon charge for a total of $100.  Of course, judicious use of water bringing the usage under 18,000 gallons would subtract one “unit” and result in a bill of $58.

The above map, provided by Dufresne Group, shows the reservoir, the storage tank and, to the south, a proposed 2nd tank. Click to enlarge.

The above map, provided by Dufresne Group, shows the reservoir, the storage tank and, to the south, a proposed 2nd tank. Click to enlarge.

The idea behind the new rate structure is to provide enough income to the system to pay for the maintenance and upgrade of infrastructure as well as operations. Underscoring the need, engineer Naomi Johnson of the Dufresne Group was on hand to report on a study of the water system that confirmed that it is failing at several state standards and needs to be upgraded. The town took a $25,800 loan from an Agency of Natural Resources program last year to pay for the study.

Johnson noted that the system needs redundant storage so parts can be taken offline for cleaning and maintenance without bringing it all down. A second storage tank – to be located on a site behind Green Mountain Union High School – would also resolve pressure deficiencies that occur when the town is fighting a fire. She also proposed replacing 3,200 feet of asbestos-cement water main along Main Street. According to Johnson, the main in question is reaching the end of its design life.


Naomi Johnson of the Dufrense Group explains the problems with Chester’s water supply system and what needs to be done about it.

“That main breaks easily,” said Johnson, “and is difficult to repair.” The cost of the upgrades are estimated at $3.1 million. The good news is that Chester has moved up the priority list for state help with water projects. “Last year Chester was No. 34 out of 35 on the list,” said Johnson. “This year, it’s in the Top 15.” On top of that, Chester can benefit from a $400,000 set-aside for final engineering and construction. That comes from state monies not spent by local projects last year.

This would allow the town to go to final design this winter, a bond vote in March 2015 and potentially favorable loan terms for doing the work. “Most towns can’t go to final design until next spring,” noted Johnson. “Chester can, and that puts us a year ahead of them.” The design work done so far is sufficient to allow funding applications to be submitted later this year. No action was required from the Select Board.

Gary Swindler of Efficiency Vermont explains the benefit of a free energy audit to the Select Board.

Gary Swindler of Efficiency Vermont explains the benefit of a free energy audit to the Select Board.

Two of three DRB appointments made;
cost of free energy audit questioned

The Select Board made one-year appointments to the Development Review Board for Don Robinson as a member and Ken Barrett as an alternate. The board announced that the position held by the late Heidi Ladd remains vacant and that no one has stepped forward to fill that post. Select Board member and Planning Commission chair Tom Bock said hoped someone would come forward. “This is a very important job,” said Bock. “The decisions they make affect the town for a long, long time.”

The Select Board also heard from Gary Swindler, an energy consultant for Efficiency Vermont. He explained to the board that Efficiency Vermont is conducting free energy audits at sewage treatment plants around the state and makes recommendations to towns and municipalities to save energy and money.

Select Board member Derek Suursoo, left, explains his disdain for contracts as member Bill Lindsay listens.

Select Board member Derek Suursoo, left, explains his paranoia of contracts as member Bill Lindsay listens.

Several members were concerned that any changes recommended by the audit might be required as a condition of the free audit. Board member Derek Suursoo told Swindler he was concerned about putting Chester on the financial hook for carrying out the recommendations of the audit. “I am paranoid about contracts,” admitted Suursoo.

Swindler explained – repeatedly – that the town would not be required to make capital expenditures, but would need to make the plant operator available to their engineer during the audit. If the town chooses to make recommended “behavioral or operations” changes by the end of the year, the town would receive a payment of $1,000 from Efficiency Vermont. He explained that efforts might include turning down thermostats and other modifications of operating procedures. After a lengthy discussion and many assurances by Swindler, the board voted to sign the memorandum of understanding and go forward with the audit.

New open meetings laws stumps some on board

The board questioned the changes to the state’s open meetings law, which, with the public records laws are “the most import public laws we have because the allow us direct access to the decisions that affect us,” according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Among the changes are a requirement that the town formally designate two public places – aside from Town Hall where notices and agendas for meetings must be posted. Several places were considered and the board voted to post its meetings at the Post Office on Main Street and Select Board member Bill Lindsay’s laundromat on Depot Street. Town Hall is on Elm Street, a short walk from Lindsay’s business.

In addition, the legislature also mandated that towns that have websites must post agendas for their meetings and also post minutes within five days of the meetings. Currently, minutes of open meetings must be available for inspection and copying at the town office five days after the meeting. The Chester Select Board has relied on having the DVD provided by SAPA-TV in the town office in lieu of minutes, but the town does not provide any way to play the disc. Town Hall staff can copy the disc(s) if needed, but that supposes that the requester has the equipment to play DVDs. Since many of the meetings are four hours or more in length, someone looking for information on a particular issue might have to work through many other discussions.

In fact, it appears that the length of the meetings is at the heart of the problem. According to DeBenedetti, executive assistant to the town manager Julie Hance has said that transcribing the minutes takes about two hours for every hour of meeting length. Wednesday’s four and a half hour meeting (plus executive session) will take upwards of 10 hours. Turning that around in five days is problematic. The board discussed the option of having shorter meetings or abbreviating the minutes to include only the names of those attending, the motions and the votes. The town has until July to fulfill this requirement, although the latter option seemed more popular. Here’s the Secretary of State’s abbreviated updates on the Open Meetings Law.

DeBenedetti said that if the town is unable to fulfill the posting requirements on its website, it must take that website down. “Thank you legislature for the changes,” said DeBenedetti, “making it more difficult.” In fact, H497 does require that the town post minutes within five days if the town has an official website, but the law does not require that the website be taken down. What DeBenedetti apparently was referring to was the Vermont League of Cities and Towns Frequently asked questions (Page 3, Question 1 Answser b) about the changes. VLCT recommends that towns make preparations to be able to post minutes within five days since it would be better to take the site down rather than risk a violation.

Other business: Free Range liquor license, ambulance services needs help

Anne Paterno appeared in support of her application for a liquor license for a new restaurant on the Green. The Free Range will open on Aug. 20 in the Victorian house that was the longtime home of Raspberries and Thyme. It will serve lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday with brunch served on Sundays. Paterno said the restaurant would serve “creative comfort food, all fresh, not processed and locally sourced as much as possible.” The board welcomed Paterno and approved the application.

The board received a final version of the layout proposal for the town solar farm, which water and sewer superintendent Jeff Holden said was an improvement over the original. But board members who had 15 days to comment and approve the plan, were less happy. Board member Arne Jonynas noted that the site plan is defined as including the plan for screening the site from neighbors and the road, but that this was missing.

Dan Cook – coordinator of the Chester Ambulance Service – told the board that after 26 years he needed to cut back and hand the reins to somebody else. “I need some of my life back,” said Cook. In outlining the situation, Cook said he was concerned that the number of people coming out to volunteer for the service has been dropping and that current members have been reluctant to step up as coordinator. The board discussed the problem that increased training mandates amounting to hundreds of hours for certification and many more in drills and calls has had in a time when many are working more than one job and those jobs don’t excuse them from work during calls.

Town manager David Pisha noted that many towns are having this problem and that Chester may be coming to a point where it will need to look at a regional or multi-town approach.

© The Chester Telegraph 2014

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  1. Brian T. heybyrne says:

    DVD!?!?!? What year is it?

    Why not just record the meeting and post it on the website? Me thinks it’s time for the Board of Curmudgeons to join the 21st century.