Bethlehem contemplates comp water plan

The Enterprise — Jo E. Prout

Animation and research: Heldervale residents consider information shared at a meeting between the town board and Heldervale water users who complained of high water rates.

NEW SCOTLAND — New Scotland residents may need to wait before they receive water taps and relief from high water bills, as the neighboring town of Bethlehem, which supplies four districts with water, prepares a comprehensive water agreement with New Scotland.

Also, New Scotland residents in the Heldervale neighborhood met with the town board last week about water bills they say are too high. Heldervale is one of eight water districts in New Scotland and one of four receiving water from Bethlehem.

Comprehensive plan

Bethlehem’s new Commissioner of Public Works, George Kansas, told The Enterprise that the two towns do not have a formal agreement for water, but merely “randomly pieced together” contracts. For sewer services, the towns do have a comprehensive agreement, he said.

“I would like to have a comprehensive water agreement, like the sewer,” Kansas, a professional engineer, said. “For sanity’s sake, have one agreement we can work off.”

Asked if new developments in New Scotland, like Creekside, which has already requested Bethlehem water, would be delayed until a plan were completed, Kansas said, “That would be my preference. That way, we can just amend it over time.”

Kansas said that, thanks to a history of water use and agreements between the towns prepared by Stantec, acting as New Scotland’s town engineering firm, Bethlehem can “tackle it pretty quickly,” and use the current sewer agreement as a template.

“I told Wayne LaChappelle I don’t want to create a ton of work for everybody,” Kansas said. LaChappelle is New Scotland’s commissioner of public works.

“I think the incoming supervisor will be working on an inter-municipal plan, and we will gladly assist,” Stantec engineer R. Mark Dempf wrote to The Enterprise in an email, referring to Supervisor-elect Douglas LaGrange. “The town of Bethlehem comprehensive sewer plan was developed in the 1970s, and, while a portion of the town of New Scotland was analyzed for inclusion, the existing sewer agreement between the two towns deals with a very specific part of the town of New Scotland.”

Heldervale residents have complained for months that they pay unfair water bills, compared to rates offered by other municipalities like Guilderland and Colonie.

According to rates provided by New Scotland, the 2014 cost per 1,000 gallons of water for residents in the Heldervale districts was $14 for the first 15,000 gallons per six-month period, with a minimum bill of $210 per house per billing cycle.

In comparison, residents in the Clarksville district, which supplies its own water, pay $4.75 per 1,000 gallons for the first 15,000 gallons used per six-month period, with a minimum bill of $71.25. The rates cover operation and maintenance costs.

Swift Road district residents, with Bethlehem water, pay the same as Heldervale residents, while residents in the Font Grove district, who also receive Bethlehem water, pay $26 per 1,000 gallons for the first 15,000 gallons.

“The majority of everybody who is an out-of-district customer pays double the district rate,” Kansas told The Enterprise. “Only one district has a different billing rate, and that’s New Salem.”

Bethlehem residents pay more than the water rate Heldervale residents have used for comparison, Kansas said.

“People in the district are paying tax for water. They’re paying additional money for being in the water district,” he said.


Good-faith gesture: Councilman William C. Hennessy Jr., who lives in the Heldervale district, describes the reliance Heldervale residents in New Scotland have on water from the town of Bethlehem. The Enterprise — Jo E. Prout


Heldervale district

“Right now, there is no formal written agreement,” New Scotland Supervisor Thomas Dolin confirmed at a meeting with Heldervale district residents last week. “There is going to be a discussion between the two townships…about the problem you’ve brought up in the past.”

Heldervale residents, who live in the town of New Scotland along the Bethlehem border in Slingerlands, met with the New Scotland Town Board to address the high water rates they pay to New Scotland for Bethlehem water.

For the Heldervale district, Dolin said, “There’s not a lot of alternatives currently. There aren’t any.”

Resident Robert Whiteman asked why the board could not equalize water costs across town.

Dolin said that, if water district users’ rates were equalized, the Heldervale district’s would go up. While a large portion of town residents use wells, some of the town’s water districts pay the rate charged by the city of Albany for water passed on to Bethlehem. Others have a debt on the rate, Dolin said.

“Each district has to pay its own cost,” said Town Attorney Michael Naughton. “We can’t just abolish it and make it all one.”

Naughton said that the history of how each district was formed affects the billing.

“It would be a very cumbersome and difficult thing to do to make things all the same,” he said.

“Most things are,” quipped a Heldervale resident.

Heldervale resident Robert Johnson, who serves on the zoning board, asked why the water district budget shows a $15,000 deficit.

“We’re in the hole, here,” he said.

“There will probably have to be an increase, sad to say,” Dolin said.

According to Lisa Boehlke, the clerk to the New Scotland supervisor, Bethlehem charges a rate to New Scotland.

“Past that point, there are charges to pay for everything that runs that district,” she told The Enterprise, listing operation and maintenance like insurance, town employees’ wages, fuel, electricity, and vehicle use.

“Only the people in the district get charged for that,” she said. Additionally, the timing of the billings affects the deficit shown.

“It’s an accounting issue of metered water rents — the amount of money able to be collected from water rents during the time the billing was made,” Boehlke said. “I use a modified accrual system for accounting. I’m trying to match expenditures in the time I can collect water rents. We bill in February. My cut-off for revenue is March 31. Because of costs, they are running in a deficit.”

At the meeting, Johnson suggested rolling the deficit into residents’ property taxes.

“You’re not supposed to use operation and maintenance from the capital budget,” Dolin said. “The comptroller doesn’t like it.”

“Why did we lose $15,000 last year?” Johnson asked.

Dolin noted that the metered rates between 2012 and 2013 dropped by several thousand dollars.

Costs for running the district stayed the same while the district paid fewer water rents, Boehlke told The Enterprise.

“You’re using less water,” Dolin said.

“We’re using less water because it’s bleeding us dry,” said Heldervale resident Marcus Hotaling.

If wishes were horses

“What are our negotiating tools?” Whiteman asked the board.

“It’s a precarious position,” LaGrange said. LaGrange, who will take over supervisor duties next month, met with Bethlehem officials last week, he said.

“You go in there hoping there’s good will,” he said. “Bethlehem is…not a bad entity to deal with. They’re good folks. They’re a large town, a large population. We’re a drop in the bucket.”

Board member William Hennessy, a Heldervale resident, noted that Bethlehem has a population of 33,000, and Heldervale and surrounding users, including the proposed taps for the Creekside development, number almost one hundred.

“It needs to be amicable,” LaGrange said. “It doesn’t do any good to go in there yelling and screaming.”

Whiteman said that New Scotland should tell Bethlehem to discuss the rates, if the town is using the Heldervale district as “cash flow,” but the board reminded him that Heldervale has no other water source.

“If they say, ‘All right, fine,’ what are we going to do?” asked board member Patricia Snyder. “Water has become a revenue source. In the past, it was neutral.”

After the meeting, Boehlke told The Enterprise, “I felt that the meeting went fairly well. There was good, open communication. How the [Heldervale] district is run is clearer. No one’s discounting their desires to make it a better situation with Bethlehem.”

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