Altamont’s sewer fund in need of financial upgrade

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Altamont’s water and sewer facility is on Gun Club Road. Two-thirds of the facility had been upgraded within the past decade. 

ALTAMONT — A year ago, Altamont’s treasurer explained to the board trustees that the sewer revenues taken in by the village were no longer enough to cover the system’s costs. Now, the village could be faced with raising rates for the first time in nearly a generation.

Last year, at a February 2020 budget workshop, Altamont Superintendent of Public Works Jeffrey Moller had told trustees that the village’s wastewater treatment facility on Gun Club Road was getting old — about two-thirds percent of the plant is now seven years old; the remaining third is four decades old.

“To upgrade the whole plant, it just wasn’t feasible; there wasn’t enough money. We couldn’t get the money,” Moller told The Enterprise this week.

Running the new facility has become more expensive in general. Water and sewer operations-and-maintenance costs have only increased since the last rate hike.

Moller said of the electrical components that run the facility’s machinery, “They have their useful life after five or six years, they start going bad on us — that’s typical of anything, I guess.”

Moller has had to have companies come in and replace some electrical components, he said. The cost can be $2,000 to $3,000, which up until this point the department has not had to worry about, Moller said, but is now something he will have to start budgeting for. 

At the February 2020 budget workshop, for example, Moller told the board, there were $6,000 in vouchers for repairs to equipment controls. But he also said that the controls had lasted longer than they were supposed to. 

Trustee Dean Whalen made the point that the village got extra time out of the controls, but soon other equipment could start to fail.

For years, the village was able to rely on Moller to keep sewer rates down because his department had been successful — whether through frugality or by making repairs — in keeping costs down.

“In the past, I remember every year, Jeff would be like: ‘I was able to cut this much from this line, this much from this line, overall, I cut this much money — this year doesn’t sound like that,” Trustee Nicholas Fahrenkopf said in March 2020.

To deal with any upcoming repairs, village Treasurer Catherine Hasbrouck was asked during last year’s budget workshop about the health of the sewer reserve fund.

It was not in good financial shape, Hasbrouck told the board. 

Hasbrouck said then that the village had been taking $25,000 out of the sewer reserve every year for the past few years to help pay back the bond on the sewer-plant upgrades.

Hasbrouck told The Enterprise at the time that it was the village board’s intent to space out the financial hit for customers. Until 2027, those customers were already going to be paying off a separate bond for upgrades to the water system, which is why it had been part of the plan to take $25,000 out of the sewer reserve fund every year until 2027 to help pay back that bond. 

Hasbrouck told the board a year ago that rates had to be raised so the village could collect another $100,000 per year — which came out to about an extra $100 per user per year. The increase would be for general operations and maintenance, a recurring annual amount. The board asked that Hasbrouck come up with several different options for how the increase could be applied. ​

Asked this week about the increase, Hasbrouck said, “We’re actually working on that now.” But there won’t be any increases this billing cycle, which starts on April 1, because, as for any options for how the increase could be applied, “we haven’t gotten that far yet.”

From the 1930s

The village is using chlorine on the effluent, sewage discharge, that leaves its wastewater treatment facility. At the old plant, the effluent flow was constant, but with the new one, the release is in batches throughout the day, so the workers are having difficulty correctly regulating the sodium bisulfite needed to remove the chlorine, so the batch is over-injected. 

Now the state has stepped in. 

The state recommended the village switch to an ultraviolet system and remove the sodium bisulfite and chlorine entirely, which would also help, because, right now, for the chlorine to interreact with the effluent in the plant, the effluent has to be held in the plant for a set amount of time for the chlorine to act.

The old “clarifier,” from the 1930s, which was converted to a contact tank to hold water, is now rotten and falling in on itself. Moller said workers were “constantly taking pieces of concrete out of the tank.”

A clarifier is a large tank where all the sewage is broken down by bugs that in turn create sludge; the sludge then is hauled away either to Albany or Schenectady, Moller explained this week.

After the plant was upgraded the first time, Moller did not exactly know when, new clarifier tanks were built and the old clarifier tank from the 1930s was converted to a “contact” tank.

In the new system, effluent goes through the filters and chlorine is injected to kill any bacteria. But the chlorine needs time to kill the bacteria, so the effluent sits in a contact tank until the chlorine reacts with the bacteria in the water, Moller said this week.

“So, we’re going to have to look at either major repair or replacement on that, and then we’re still back in the same boat with the chemicals,” Moller said. “Where a UV system would alleviate both problems.”

With the current treatment system, chlorine is injected into the water to kill E. coli and other bacteria. With the UV system, ultraviolet light tubes are inside a unit that the water passes through and the UV light kills the bacteria. 

So light, not chemicals, is killing the bacteria. 

In the long-run, a UV system would be less expensive, but the “upfront cost is quite expensive,” Moller said this week.

Treatment Plant Operator, a sewage treatment facility trade publication, says that the capital and operating costs of a UV plant would almost equal the cost of a traditional plant within five years, and within 20 years, it would cost half as much to run a UV plant as a traditional sewage treatment facility. 

“But it’s a good technology,” Moller said; it’s started to take hold in the United States in the past 15 to 20 years, but it’s been used in Europe for some time.

During the Feb. 24 hearing, Moller said this year that he wants to contact an engineering firm to see if it could come up with “some prices and ideas for us.”

Whalen asked if there was an equipment reserve line that the village had been socking away money toward to deal with failures like this, and then asked if it’s something the village would have to budget for. 

Hasbrouck said there’s an equipment line that is for trucks and skid-steer loaders and bulldozers, “that kind of thing.” That fund has $68,000, Hasbrouck told The Enterprise this week.

She asked Moller if he knew what a UV system would cost and he did not know, but he “imagine[d] it would be quite a bit.” And then Moller said he wouldn’t be surprised if it cost $100,000. 

Trustee Michelle Ganance asked how much longer the tanks (there are two) would hold up, and Moller said they had another couple of years of life. Ganance also asked Moller about the possibility of a more catastrophic failure and if there is a need to prepare for that, and he didn’t think that was possible.

Moller said this week that the tank is drained about once every month-and-a-half and everything that has sunk to the bottom is removed.

Hasbrouck said, when the sewage-treatment plant was upgraded, the engineers had planned it so that, by the time the water wells were paid off, which is in another five years, water rates could be lowered and sewer rates could be increased to pay for repairs to the holding tanks, which had an estimated repair cost of $270,000. 


February workshop

During the Feb. 24 budget workshop, Fahrenkopf said one thing that Hasbrouck had brought to the board’s attention last year was the state of the sewer fund.

 Fahrenkopf asked Hasbrouck for a lot of data to see if the problem was a one-off or if it was systemic, he said.

Fahrenkopf found that sewer revenue had gone down every year for the past six years — however, there hadn’t been a commensurate drop in expenses; in three of the six years, expenses increased while revenues decreased

“Why is revenue going down as we’re adding more users?” he asked.

Sewer rates are based on water use; customers are using less water.

Among the theories posited: Hasbrouck said the Peter Young Center had closed; Moller said people are just using less water; snowbirds live in Brandle Meadows and, in addition, those residents also often pay half-rate; the Altamont fairgrounds put on fewer events in general than in years’ past while it is also upgrading its system; and low-flow toilets.

Fahrenkopf wondered if the number of customers who are paying the minimum water rent, $52 twice a year for up to 9,999 gallons, had changed significantly. Sewer fees are 180 percent of a customer’s April water bill and 150 percent of the October bill.

“I guess my point is: There’s not much we can do; it is what it is,” Fahrenkopf said. “It would be good to know why it’s happening, but my point would be: If revenues are going down, then it might not be unjustified to consider adjusting the rate.”

Hasbrouck said, “I think it’s going to be necessary, you’re going to have to really — I was hoping we’d get through until the water wells were paid off, but I don’t think we’re going to get there”; sewer rates will likely have to be raised, she said.

Something happened between 2017 and 2020, Fahrenkopf said: Sludge-removal costs continued to go up, from about $49,000 in 2017 to about $62,000 this year. The other upward cost was equipment repairs, which were close to $5,000 each year for 2017, 2018, and 2019, but spiked to over $24,000 in 2020. 

Fahrenkopf’s question for Moller: Was this a blip, or are things starting to break down and this is the new normal? Moller responded that he thought the added costs would be “the new norm.” The equipment was already “aging out” at the treatment plant.

For 2021-22, the village has $55,000 allocated for sludge removal at the treatment plant and $6,000 for equipment repairs. 

“I guess the takeaway is: Our revenue is down, our expenses are up — and, yeah, maybe, we’ve got to do something,” Fahrenkopf said.

Fahrenkopf also said, “I know the entire time I’ve been here, every year Jeff seems to figure out a way to get by. But it just seems like a structural problem that we’ve got to do something different.”



Hasbrouck told the board during the Feb. 24 hearing that about $70,000 had to be borrowed from the general fund to balance the sewer fund. “The board can write that off,” Hasbrouck said. “But at this point, I can’t get that paid back to the general fund.”

Hasbrouck explained to The Enterprise that, in municipal accounting, the $70,000 was originally a short-term loan, to be paid back in one year but, because the sewer fund doesn’t take in enough money, the short-term loan will have to be repaid over time, so it gets a different accounting designation. 

“Actually, I was talking to the comptroller’s office today and they were looking at our annual report from last year, and was asking about the sewer fund, so I think it’s something we really have to look at,” Hasbrouck said during the Feb. 24 hearing. 

“The problem with this whole system,” Hasbrouck said, is that the village adopts its budget in April, but water-and-sewer customers don’t have to make their payments until May, so “it’s a little bit tricky to know where you stand.”

In the past few years, as revenues have gone down, Hasbrouck said, the village hasn’t known that until after it has adopted a budget. 

Altamont has 776 in-village water customers and 273 out-of-village water customers, who pay a higher rate for service. The village has fewer sewer customers, 884. 

One of the few bright spots, Hasbrouck said, is that the cell tower is generating $18,000 in annual rent for the village — that money is allocated toward the water fund. There is also logging that is happening at the reservoir, which the board could decide to allocate to the sewer fund, Hasbrouck said. 

Hasbrouck said she thought rates would have to be raised. 

Any increase in water-and-sewer rates would require a local law. 

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