Fairlee — The Selectboard fielded some tough questioning from a couple of voters at Town Meeting on Tuesday regarding financial management of the town’s dam reconstruction project as well as a failing, 265,000-gallon water tank built in 2004.
“This is a serious problem,” Selectman Frank J. Barrett Jr. said of the failing tank. “This is probably as serious a problem as I’ve seen in my 22 years serving this town.”
The tank, which was built on a hill off of Bald Top Road, west of Lake Morey, to allow the town to provide fire protection services, was supposed to have a 75-year life span. Without water from the tank, the town would have to remove fire hydrants to comply with state regulations, Barrett explained, which would add to insurance rates for homeowners.
The town discovered the problem during a routine inspection when divers venturing inside the concrete structure found broken-off chunks. An older tank, built in 1972 at the same location, remains in fine working condition.
“It’s not an emergency yet,” Barrett said. “We hope to keep it from becoming an emergency.”
John Durgin used the floor microphone to express concerns with the potential cost of the failing tank, and asked why the town hadn’t informed voters about this issue earlier.
“That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence,” Durgin said.
Selectwoman Catherine McGrath noted that the issue had been discussed in the town’s newsletter, which is delivered to all residents.
The board is exploring options for fixing or replacing the tank, and depending on how quickly an insurance settlement can be reached, the town may need to borrow money to begin work. There’s no price tag yet, but Barrett called it “serious money.”
Earlier in the meeting, Lance Mills questioned the board’s judgment on a different big-ticket item: the replacement of the dam on Lake Fairlee.
The town had run into problems with the replacement when the contractor asked for $25,000 beyond what had been agreed upon. Barrett said the board lost confidence in the contractor and eventually rebid the project with a different contractor.
While Mills asked whether the town suffered by taking on additional legal and other fees, Barrett defended the board’s choice in changing contractors.
“Was there some pain attached to it?” Barrett asked. “You bet. That’s why we’re having this discussion. Were we comfortable with it? No we weren’t. But we felt it was important to get the project done, and it was a very successfully completed project with a superb contractor.”
But Mills wasn’t satisfied. “I think you guys botched this project ... and cost this town money that could have been spent on the dam,” he said.
Much of the rest of the town’s business was conducted efficiently during the two-hour meeting. There were shorter discussions about moving the Town Hall water line, the paving project along Lake Morey Road, and town beautification projects.
The nearly 95 voters present approved all articles on voice votes, and 18 town officials were nominated and elected. All ran unopposed.
At the end of the meeting, Moderator Bruce Taylor recognized Russ Smith, a longtime Fairlee resident who had served as moderator for 19 years.
Smith received a standing ovation and thanked those gathered for the applause, but also expressed sadness over the distrust of town officials he’d heard that morning.
“It just hurts me deeply,” Smith said.
A municipal well and small pump house are located just north of the Fairlee Diner off Route 5 and supplies a water tank built in 2004 that Fairlee officials say has a cracked roof. That tank, and an older, intact tank, are off of Bald Top Road, west of Lake Morey. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the newer water tank's location.