Board sets sewer and water rates, moves forward with wastewater project

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BENNINGTON — The Bennington Select Board approved an increase of four percent in the sewer rate at its meeting on Monday, as officials cautioned that more increases are on the horizon.

The Bennington Select Board also approved the next phase of the ongoing Wastewater Treatment Facility project, which is on schedule to be completed this fall.

The board set the quarterly flat water rate at $135.77 for FY 19, up two percent from this year, and the quarterly flat sewer rate at $99.26, up four percent. Cost per 1,000 gallons will increase to $5.03 for water and $3.45 for sewer. The per gallon rate increases match the percentage increases of the flat rates.

Town Manager Stu Hurd said that past Select Boards kept rates artificially low for years by not budgeting for depreciation. These new rates are above the Vermont median, Hurd said.

"The four percent was difficult for this board to get around," said board member Donald Campbell about the rate increase. "I think there's still a lot of work to do, because this doesn't get us out of the woods. We need to be really aware that sewer costs are going to continue to go up for awhile."

"We're going to see another large impact next year," said Hurd. "We committed approximately $50,000 from the fund balance to keep this rate (increase) at four percent. So we're going to be looking at a myriad of ways to mitigate the fact that the remainder of the bond will be in play next year, we'll have to begin paying that down. We also have an increase in depreciation due to the improvements to the plant we'll make over the coming years," so we've got our work cut out for us."

"We have to pay for the services we get," said Chairman Tom Jacobs. "These are times you have to pay for what you use, and if you use it and don't pay for it you can run into a real problem."

In April 2017, state fined the Town of Bennington $15,000 for failing to maintain its wastewater treatment plant after the Department of Environmental Conservation determined that the previous summer, the "facility's disrepair caused foul odors and several releases of partially-treated wastewater into the Walloomsac River." In addition to the fine, the town was also required to submit an analysis addressing how the facility will maintain the existing RBC units so that consistent permit compliance can be maintained pending more permanent upgrades. This process eventually lead to a Oct. 2017 bond vote to fund the improvements to the plant, which passed 520-209.

"It is unfortunate," wrote Hurd in a Letter to the Editor prior to the bond vote, "but we do find ourselves facing, not only the cost to construct, but also fines to be paid to the state should we not complete the work in a timely manner."

Hurd said that the loan application the Select Board approved on Monday is for what he is calling "phase two" of the wastewater treatment facility project, which covers improvements beyond replacing the RBC units.

Jason Booth, of project engineers Aldrich and Elliot, said on Monday, "The construction loan application basically rolls everything for that phase into one consolidated loan for the town. This is a typical final phase that we have to go through." The loan application, to the state revolving loan fund, is for $5,345,000.

"That represents the entire project cost, excluding the RBCs," said Booth. "That includes the construction, contingency that's carried standard on the project, engineering, permit fees, and other administrative fees that are associated with the project."

So far in phase one, town wastewater employees have replaced two rows of eight RBC units. The third row will be delivered in August.

"We're getting a better cleanup of the wastewater passing through there than we were with all 24 units, because they were so old and so deteriorated," Hurd said.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has already reviewed the project design, but was waiting for approval from the Select Board before beginning its final review process.

"From an overall budget perspective, the project is pretty much exactly where we expected it to be," Booth said. The project, which is expected to be completed by this November, is currently well within the $9.85 million amount approved by bond voters last October. Including contingency funds, the both phases of project together are expected to cost around $9.1 million.

Booth said that the next, and most comprehensive, update on the project's budget will come after bids are opened in early July.

"The Town of Bennington has a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to discharge treated wastewater into the Walloomsac River," according to the May 2017 press release from the DEC after the initial incident. "Prior to discharge, units known as rotating biological contactors (RBC) biologically treat the wastewater. In the late summer of 2016, failure of two-thirds of the facility's 32 RBC units caused discharge water to be released into the river with bacteria levels above allowable standards. Beginning in 2015, the Town adopted a schedule to replace four RBC units annually. After eight units were replaced, three catastrophically failed, causing a cascade of failures across other units. As these mechanical, electrical, and structural problems persisted, only 10 of the 32 RBC units remained operational by the fall of 2016. In fact, eight RBC units had been intentionally decommissioned in order to supply the system with replacement parts."

"Facilities that operate on the margins of disrepair run a much greater risk of dangerously releasing untreated wastewater into rivers we use for fishing, swimming, playing," said DEC Commissioner Emily Boedecker at the time. "It is imperative that we hold communities responsible for ensuring their public wastewater infrastructure investments remain in good working order."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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