Another water rate hike on tap in Chester; Select Board ethics policy debate continues

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Select Board, at its Wednesday, Aug. 3 meeting, decided not to act on a recommendation from Town Manager David Pisha to approve a water rate increase. Instead, the five-member panel will warn the rate increase for the next meeting — Aug. 17 — and make that decision as its alter ego – the Chester Water Commissioners.

Bill Lindsay

Bill Lindsay speaks out about what he says is unclear and inaccurate billing for water, Photos by Shawn Cunningham

As part of the requirements to qualify for the negative interest loan that is paying for the water system upgrade, approved by voters last September, Pisha told the board the town will have to raise water rates to represent 1 percent of the median household income for the water district.

This would bring the average annual water bill to approximately $335. Rather than raise the rates in one big jump, Pisha continues to advocate for smaller increases set out over a longer period of time.

To this end, Pisha asked the board last Wednesday to approve a $2 increase in the equivalent unit rate, which is currently $44. Each user is charged for one equivalent unit for every 18,000 gallons he takes from the system. This calculation is based on the average household usage and spreads the cost of maintaining the system out among those — like second homeowners — who often use much less water. In addition to the equivalent unit, users are also charged $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used.

Former board member Bill Lindsay said that his household bill (separate from the bill for his laundromat) is far higher than he would expect, but that he cannot tell what is going on because water bills do not break out the equivalent and per gallon charges. Board member Heather Chase said she had never seen a water bill, since she has a well, and wondered if the usage calculations could be shown on the bill. Executive Assistant Julie Hance said that billing is done by a software module that would need to be reprogrammed for that type of report and she would ask the provider about the cost of that work.

Conflict of interest policy debate continues

The board took another small step in the process of crafting and adopting conflict of interest policy for elected and appointed officials including the Select Board, Planning Commission and Development Review Board. Using a Vermont League of Cities and Towns model policy with several additions including a definition of “bias” and another prohibiting a public officer from participating “in any decision making which benefits any group, organization or subcommittee for which that public officer is a member or has a substantial affiliation.”

The board was quickly knee-deep in what-ifs involving how the board can operate if its members must recuse themselves from decisions involving things that they are knowledgeable about because of their participation in an organization. Board member Ben Whalen asked if this would mean that he would have to sit out a decision on a public safety issue because he is both an officer in the Chester Fire Department and also a Vermont State Police dispatcher.

“That’s when I want Ben’s perspective,” said board member Dan Cote.

Board chair John DeBenedetti said he would like to see it written into the policy that public officers should not sit on more than one board. Resident Frank Bidwell asked how that would work when it is often difficult to find people to sit on any boards. Resident Marilyn Mahusky, who chairs the elementary school board, said she thought there should be more of an effort to recruit participation, but agreed that planning and development review should not overlap membership.

Business climate; Act 64 committee appointments; Chester masterplanning

Springfield Regional Development Corp. Executive Director Bob Flint, attending at the invitation of the board, made a  presentation noting that SRDC has 11 current clients in Chester and will be taking on another later in the week. Flint outlined the services that SRDC provides for local businesses including help with the tax incentives and other programs for businesses in the Village Center district. Applications were due for one of those programs on July 1 and Flint said that there were at least three applications from Chester.

Bob Flint

Bob Flint of SRDC discusses the economic climate in the area with the select board.

Flint presented a brief overview of a Business Climate Survey and a Workforce Study that SRDC has just completed.

He also spoke about the Vermont Futures Project, which held a workshop in Chester in May. The program is an initiative of the Vermont Chamber Foundation – an arm of the state chamber of commerce – and bills itself as a data driven exercise “to inform the conversation about Vermont’s economic future.” Project personnel held workshops around the state and collected the thoughts of those who attended to use in “articulating a shared vision” of the Vermont’s future, which will be released in the fall.

Dan Potter

Dan Potter of SWCRPC explains the role of the Clean Water Committee in implementing Act 64.

Dan Potter, a planner with the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission, made a presentation on Act 64, which is meant to improve the quality of Vermont’s state waters by regulating agricultural runoff, stormwater runoff from roads and developed lands and managing river corridors, floodplains, wetlands and forest lands. Municipalities will have responsibilities under the law and but grants are available to help. One inducement for towns to adopt new river corridor and flood plans is the Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund. The ERAF provides an extra amount of state aid for towns that experience natural disasters, filling in the gaps between federal and state relief funding.

SE Group Proposal_Village Center Master Plan-FINAL-1

The cover of SE Group’s proposal. Click the link in the text of the article to read the entire proposal.

Potter told the board that Regional Planning Commission has the role of providing information to local governments and taking their comments back to the state. To do so, SWCRPC is establishing a Clean Water Committee made up of representatives of municipalities to be part of the process of implementing the law. The board appointed Julie Hance as the town’s representative and board Heather Chase as an alternate.

The board quickly approved SE Group of Burlington as the consultant to conduct a grant funded village center master planning exercise and authorized Pisha to sign the contract. Cote said his biggest concern was “how we present, market and implement this,” adding that it must be open and transparent. Pisha said that SE Group is known for being proactive about community engagement. “They were selected because they had a much larger community outreach component than the others,” said Hance

And finally, resident Frank Bidwell referred back to the Grafton Woodlands Group presentation on July 20 and expressed his concern with what might happen to Chester if the wind farm in Windham and Grafton is approved. Bidwell asked if residents could expect to see roads widened to accommodate huge turbine parts and whether that could mean losing a portion of the Green.

Whelan asked Pisha if he had followed up on the issue. Pisha said that the State of Vermont is trying to find the right person for him to talk to and would get back to him.

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