Chester Select Board agrees to water project ‘do-over’

By Shawn Cunningham
2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Town Manager David Pisha explains the position of the state drinking water loan fund to the select board.

Town Manager David Pisha explains the position of the State Drinking Water loan fund to the Select Board. All photos by Shawn Cunningham. Click to launch gallery.

In the wake of last Tuesday’s defeat of a vote to ratify the May 19 water project passage, the Chester Select Board met in a sparsely attended noon meeting on Thursday July 2 to affirm that it is behind the project and will bring it to another vote later this summer.

This in effect means that the board will have to hold two public hearings and a public vote, all properly warned, unlike the May 19 vote.

The board’s affirmation was done in an effort to demonstrate to the State Drinking Water Fund that  — although the June 1 deadline to reserve the money to fund the project at low interest rates has passed — town government is committed to the project.

Town Manager David Pisha said that Eric Law, who heads up the Drinking Water Loan Fund, noted that the original vote passed by a 26-vote margin out of 198 cast, but that the ratification failed by 5 votes out of 143 total. Law, Pisha said, wondered if such a small sample was reflective of what the public in Chester wanted.

According to Pisha, Law, who is leaving for a job in the federal government, has said that Chester is not on the priority list for 2015 funds, but remains on the priority lists for 2013 and 2014. While the next steps are up to Law’s successor, Pisha told the board that making a commitment to the project could help convince the state to continue to hold the funds for Chester. Pisha also noted that Law would ask his successor to make a recommendation on holding the loan funds for Chester.

Pisha said that Law also said that signing the loan papers would help to show a commitment to go forward, but that that was only a formality since the state would not lend any money to the town until it had bonding authority from the voters.

“Signing keeps the funds for a period. How long?” asked board member Tom Bock.

Water Superintendent Jeff Holden tells the board it needs to get behind the project publicly.

Water Superintendent Jeff Holden tells the board it needs to get behind the project publicly.

“It’s a brick in the wall.” said Pisha. “It’s not guaranteed.”

“It needs another vote,” said board chair John DeBenedetti.

A motion was made to affirm that the town still wanted to do the water project. During the discussion that followed, board member Heather Chase said that she would vote for the motion with the understanding that she would like to have answers to questions that the town could not answer in the run-up to the original vote, which had to be done by June 1 to guarantee the funding.

Pisha agreed and said that the town needed town water users to return the Median Household Income surveys that were sent out last month to the 599 or so water users. The town needs a 38 percent return on the survey. The final cost of borrowing is dependent on getting those answered. If a statistically significant percentage are not returned, the state will use a Census income number that many believe is higher than the actual household incomes, thus raising the cost of the project.

DeBenedetti and board member Bill Lindsay both said that fire safety is No. 1 and that this project needed to be done for fire safety. The board voted 4-0 to affirm the town’s commitment to the project and to hold another vote. DeBenedetti does not vote on board motions unless there is a tie.

The board did not sign the loan agreement however, since there were legal statements in the document that they could not certify. Instead, an email would be sent to the drinking water fund saying that the board is willing to sign, except for the certifications.

Water Superintendent Jeff Holden rose to say that fire flow is not the No. 1, priority, but that providing safe drinking water is. Pointing to the recent water main break, Holden said that the system is old and needs work and that the board has to get behind the project.

“Only one board member said they were for it, the rest were vague,” said Holden referring to the Monday night informational meeting. “I hope you can say definitely that you support it in the future.”

In his impassioned, brief request, Holden said he has worked for the town for 26 years and during that time he has “tried to do my best for the community. It’s hard not to lose my cool.”

Select Board member Bill Lindsay responds to Holden.

Select Board member Bill Lindsay responds to Holden.

“Were you at the (informational) meeting?” asked Lindsay.

“As much as I could stand,” answered Holden, “So much that was said didn’t seem like you supported the project.”

Julie Hance, assistant to the town manager, agreed. “It did not come across that you supported the project,” Hance told the board.

“You need to say ‘I’m for it’ so people can trust it,” said Holden.

Having affirmed its position for the state, the Select Board will discuss how to move forward with another vote at its July 15 regular meeting.

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  1. Barre Pinske says:

    Thank you Shawn, I wish I could slow down and be more a part of the process, maybe we all do. Decisions that cost money and raise our cost of living are difficult to make, I understand that. This is a big pot we are cooking here and every ingredient matters, I get it. I’m not sure it’s best to ask the salt and pepper how much spice is needed but that is the at the core of Democracy.

    There obviously is a reason for the vote to take the action or not, but I would prefer to vote on the cooks only and hope for good soup. Obviously with such a small turnout people are either too busy, not well informed enough or just plain apathetic. The coverage you all provide helps keep a lot of folks in the loop. It’s nice of you and Cynthia to take the risk and and put in the effort. I really appreciate it.

    I like to make comments. It’s easy to criticize the players and coaches from your couch, I get that. I want our town to thrive and be a cool place to live. There is a boatload of money traveling through this town. We should not have to struggle here if we get creative and play our cards right.

  2. A lot of interesting points Barre. To be fair though, the project did pass on the first vote. If not for the glitch in warning it (which made the ratification vote necessary) the town would be getting the loan paperwork done. Your point about representative government is well taken, but the people have to get out and vote too. There may be 500 households affected, but fewer than 200 voters turned out for each of the two ballots.

  3. Barre Pinske says:

    I don’t understand our town government at all. Are they going to keep voting until it passes? How can most folks go to a noon meeting on two days notice?

    I spoke with a Select Board member while the water main was getting fixed and that member told me I needed to go to more meetings to find out what was going on and to have more input. I feel very strongly that elected officials are put into power to make the right decisions for the people so we can focus on living our lives and meeting our responsibilities as business people and family members.

    I have attended meetings with the Select Board and the economic development group, presented viable ideas that I’m moving forward with. I received little or no support and had to answer questions and listen to comments that showed no understanding of a simple and clear plan. The reality is that you cannot be afraid to be wrong just because you cannot predict the future. You cannot be afraid someone will not like what you are doing. You can count on both of those things.

    If you are a leader you need to be able to deal with those things and be smart enough to get it as right as it can be. That is what we lack here in Chester: strong confident leadership and the smarts to back it up.

    No one knows more about the water system than Jeff Holden. If the Select Board can’t sit down with him and figure things out, it should appoint a group of people who can. No one in this town wants to spend a dime, most don’t have it. It’s a very small group taking on a big load – 800 households or fewer for a $4 million project?

    Please, someone take charge, figure it out and say, “like it or not this is what we need and make it happen.” The public are not water experts and without a bunch of clearly written facts, how can we know what to do? Why is there even talk about who owns the land we would be buying? Is there a way to just fix the pipes and not need the second tank for what I understand to be water balance?

    How about an old school water tower in the center of town. Maybe it’s cheaper than running pipes up and down a mountain to a tank.