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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 14, 2009

Treading water in Westerlo

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — Discontent in the four-year-old water district has boiled over into town board meetings in recent months, as some residents believe that they are being overcharged on their water rates.

The hamlet’s water district had been planned since 2000, and was completed in 2005. It combined two outdated private systems, and was funded by a $1.275 million grant and by an $850,000 interest-free loan from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

“Originally, there were certain estimates of what was going to be necessary to fund the water district, and the distribution among users that had to do with bond repayment, operation and maintenance, and use costs,” Westerlo Attorney Aline Galgay told The Enterprise this week. “Basically, you have to estimate your first set of billings because you don’t have anything to compare it against yet. We did that, and there was a shortfall, so they recalculated what the fees should be.”

In 2007, Robert Fisher, the town’s accountant, worked on adjusting the water rates. At last week’s meeting, town board members and district resident Bill Bichtemann talked about their difficulties in getting Fisher to comply with Freedom of Information Law requests and demands by the board to release his worksheets.

The board voted to approve Supervisor Richard Rapp’s writing a letter to Fisher, requiring him, as a town employee, to provide the desired documents, and both Bichtemann and the board discussed the possibility of a lawsuit in the event of his continued refusal.

Fisher could not be reached for comment.

“I’m still dissatisfied with how the system is run, and the wheels seem to be moving awfully slow,” Bichtemann told The Enterprise this week. “I’m particularly annoyed with the situation with the [Freedom of Information Law requests]. A consultant to the town can defy the law, and the town board basically just shakes their head? I’ve been asking for these documents since December,” he said.

Bichtemann owns four properties in Westerlo, and feels that the town owes him money because of “mismanagement” of the water system. He has voiced this sentiment at several town board meetings in recent months.

“I originally hooked up to the system because I thought it would help the water district get adopted, and I thought it would help my property values,” Bichtemann said. “I own two vacant lots, where there’s no water usage at all, and they now charge me $750 per vacant lot annually, even though they use no water,” he said.

Gene Germani, another resident who lives in the water district, has become discontent as well.

“I have a parcel of land that has a house and an out building,” Germani said earlier this year. “With the out building, I said I’d just tie it into my house. They said, ‘Oh no, that’s a separate building, so it has to have its own valve.’ Then, the price goes up to $750 a year. So, now I’ve got one valve going to my home, one valve to the out building, and then one valve to the other parcel I own across the street. You mean to tell me that it’s $2,250 just to have these valves on my property? I’m not even hooked up — I have my own personal well.”

Asked why he wanted to connect to the water district in the first place, Germani said he felt pressured to do so. “They said, ‘Well, we’re sorry, but, to put water in those buildings, you can’t do it at a later time — now is when they’re doing the engineering; now’s the time to do it.’”

Galgay, who also lives in the water district, presented another point of view.

“I believe Mr. Bichtemann feels that, when they recalculated it, the allocation of who pays what was incorrect,” Galgay said, “and that certain property owners that have hookups, but don’t use the water, shouldn’t pay operation and maintenance — that those who use the water should pay it. But, there are people who say that’s not the case, because, if you have the service, that means you can at any time hook up, so you should be paying for operation and maintenance.”

Bichtemann said the real issue goes back to when the town first discussed the idea of a water district with the public.

“Originally,” Bichtemann said, “the town made representation of the amount that town residents would have to pay for water and everything, and part of that was that it would be operated by town personnel.” Instead, he said, “They didn’t run the system in-house; they hired someone else to run the water system for them, which wasn’t in their budget allocated cost. So, they ran the system for about 18 months with a deficit, and then, the town sent a notice that they were going to raise the water rates,” he said.

The problem, Galgay said, was that no one in town wanted the job.

“One of the discussions, both during the course of putting the district together and after, was that we need someone who is certified to test the water and operate the system, put in the chemicals, and do what they need to do,” said Galgay. “But we could not find anyone in town who wanted to do the work, someone who is willing to get certified and willing to take on that extra responsibility, so we have an outside company that does it.”

That company is LVDV Operations, Inc. out of Cobleskill, N.Y.

“Bill is saying that, since it costs more to use an external person instead of using someone internally, the town board isn’t being fiscally responsible,” Galgay said of Bichtemann.

Bichtemann concluded, “Hopefully they’ve sent that letter to Fisher. I’ll wait and see what happens with that.”

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