Problems with the water district still plague the town of Westerlo

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Westerlo’s water treatment facility, located in the town park, is in need of a costly filtration system, but the town is still trying to find the funding.

WESTERLO — The town board here may use highway workers to monitor its water treatment center to save money for the small but costly water district. After bromomethane was discovered in the water, the town learned a filtration system may cost $200,000

William Bichteman, a former town councilman who was recently re-appointed to the town’s water board, gave a report on the state of the water district to the town board at its Nov. 5 meeting. With increasing costs anticipated in the water district, Bichteman asked that the town consider having jurisdiction of the plant operations again and having a highway employee monitor the plant rather than having the water district pay its own employee $28,000 a year to do it.

Stating that this was how the district had been intended to be run, Bichteman added that this could ultimately save around $5,000 a year. Bichteman said that the scope of services would need to be defined by the town board. Councilman Anthony Sherman asked that he, Bichteman, and Highway Superintendent Jody Ostrander discuss this together.

Bichteman later noted that for the first two years the highway employee would need to work alongside the current employee in order to be certified to work in a treatment facility, so the savings would be delayed.

The town’s proposed 2019 budget would need to be altered to reflect new changes in the water district for next year, Bichteman said. A bond payment would increase from $310.34 to $315. In addition, operating expenses would increase by $1,270. For residents of the water district, the water rate would increase from $17.45 to $17.51 per 1,000 gallons used.

“It’s unavoidable,” Bichteman said, of the costs, stating that the general repairs, the bromomethane filter, and a new heater that needed to be installed at the treatment plant all led to a shortfall that would have to be paid out of the district’s cash reserve fund.

The need for a filter in the water treatment plant was discovered after the town’s water was found to have bromomethane in it this March. For months now, the town has now been seeking a way to fund a filtration system.

Bichteman said that the county’s health department confirmed that the bromomethane levels are not an immediate health risk but asked for a remediation plan. Albany County did not specify a timeline for the town’s plan, Bichteman said, but recommended the town negotiate to establish a timeline with the county.

Costs for the new filtration system are estimated at $200,000, Bichteman said, adding more recent estimates are lower but he considers the $200,000 a “reasonable amount.”

“I don’t want to shoot low,” he said.

Town grant writer Nicole Ambrosio said at the Nov. 5 town board meeting that a grant through the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation could be obtained only for mitigating pollution from substances like Perfluorooctanoic acid (known as PFOA) or similar chemicals, but said there is a possibility that the town could be placed on an intended-use plan and receive money set aside from the DEC program in 2019.

Ambrosio had suggested last month that the town apply for a grant through the Regional Economic Development Council but said that the town, at $80,000, was above the median income to qualify. Ambrosio said the town could apply to have a free survey of the water district residents conducted to determine the median income of the 87 households within the district.

Ambrosio received clearance to apply and found a group through the federal government that would survey the homes once a letter from the supervisor requests it, she said.

Ambrosio also said that the town could apply for a low-interest loan, noting that it could be the cheaper option. Bichteman cautioned against applying for a loan, however.

“Unfortunately, short of an outright grant, financing options even at zero-percent offer no relief to our financially-strapped water district,” he said, stating that a loan may add to the financial burden or even be objected to by the county comptroller.

Four homes removed from district

Another financial problem is looming for the water district, said Bichteman. The district is already “gerrymandered” to exclude those who did not want to be billed for town water; four other homes will soon be removed, he said.

When a household does not pay for its water, the water district remands that bill to the county. Resolution 465(a), which was introduced in the Albany County Legislature in 2013 and passed unanimously in 2014, states that, if a property has not paid its water bill for the last three billing cycles, the services must be terminated. The county would also recoup any unmetered water or sewer charges levied as county taxes.

The resolution was meant to tackle the issue of vacant properties being charged an unmetered rate just for being a part of a water district despite not using any water; the unpaid rates were remanded onto property taxes.

This year, four Westerlo homes in the water district will be removed for not paying their bills, said Bichteman.

“They closed four properties and in this case it eliminates the revenue for the bond,” he said, redistributing the bond payment across 83 households and not 87.

The town could receive some dispensation as a hardship consideration, Bichteman said, noting he didn’t believe the law was written with towns like Westerlo in mind.

Residents seated in the gallery debated with Bichteman, maintaining it would be better to spread the cost among the entire town’s taxpayers rather than just those in the water district, which Bichteman balked at.

“You’re asking 3,500 people to pay for 80,” he said.

Bichteman did say, however, that he is hoping the water district can be expanded to include 88 households after redrawing the district and including the Hilltown Community Resource Center.

Ed Lawson, the town’s code enforcement officer and deputy supervisor, said that the water system, which was implemented in 2005, was always intended to supply more households than the district currently does.

Lawson said that he has in the past spoken with representatives like Congressman Paul Tonko and state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, who both have backgrounds in engineering. But he said that most of the focus from lawmakers is on aging infrastructure and not a new and expensive system. Lawson added that, when it comes to funding filtration, much of the focus is on PFOAs and similar chemicals.

“We have a unique problem,” said Bichteman.

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