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Woodstock divided over splitting bill for wastewater treatment plant

  • Volunteer Molly Maxham, 16, right, waits to transport the microphone to the next speaker as Jason Drebitko, left, questions the Selectboard during the Woodstock, Vt., Town Meeting Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. Voters at the meeting approved a $2.8 million bond to upgrade the South Woodstock Wastewater Treatment Facility, but are now at odds over who will cover the cost — ratepayers who benefit from the facility, or the town tax base as a whole. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2021 9:40:33 PM
Modified: 10/22/2021 9:40:42 PM

WOODSTOCK — Voters at Town Meeting in 2020 approved a $2.8 million bond to upgrade the South Woodstock Wastewater Treatment Facility.

But the lowest bid to do the work came in considerably higher. And Woodstock residents can’t agree, despite months of deliberation, whether property owners who use private septic systems ought to contribute or if only the 46 users of the facility should foot the bill to repay the bond.

By one calculation, if the 46 ratepayers connected to the sewer cover the $2.8 million bond at 2.5% interest, they would pay an average of about $4,000 each year. If all taxpayers in town share the cost, they would pay an average of $100 a year.

In 2017, the Vermont Department of Environmental Services notified the town that the small treatment plant needed an upgrade. Built on Kedron Brook in 1966, the facility has continued operating without any upgrades for 55 years.

Jennie Auster, the private engineer hired by the town, said that it is “well beyond its useful life.” The town owns the facility and would face fines if it were not repaired.

Wastewater treatment plants are critical to keeping waterways clean by reducing the pollutants in wastewater, but Auster said there isn’t “any imminent concern” about how the out-of-date facility may be impacting Kedron Brook.

Town officials said the work needs to be done.

“Every improvement we make should have a very positive impact on our waterways,” Mary Riley, who chairs the Selectboard, said in an interview Friday. “That’s the intent — that’s what we’re protecting, the waterways.” The town would also have to decommission the facility eventually if it did not meet EPA standards.

While residents approved the $2.8 million bond in March 2020, the bid to do the work came in at over $4 million. Grants, including a federal pollution control grant for $976,208, will help defray the difference, although the town will likely have to find an additional $208,000.

This past April, it arose that residents were not clear on who would pay for the bond. Some thought that the whole town would contribute to the bond each year, while others thought that only sewer-users would pay. A committee was formed “to look at the best and most fair way to cover major upgrades to the wastewater plants — not annual costs, we’re talking about major, major upgrades,” said Karim Houry, a South Woodstock resident who first suggested forming a committee.

The committee’s deliberations extended beyond the South Woodstock facility to any “large capital expenditures for town-owned assets, in particular those assets connected to an identified set of users,” according to the notes submitted to the Selectboard ahead of its meeting on Tuesday evening. How the South Woodstock dispute is resolved could also matter because the main Woodstock sewage plant, which serves 901 users and is located by the Ottauquechee River, will soon be in need of an EPA-mandated upgrade that could cost between $8 million and $18 million. The town’s third facility, the Taftsville plant, was upgraded to EPA standards with $300,000 from reserves of sewer fees, which are now exhausted.

The committee included four property owners served by one of the town’s wastewater systems, and four with septic systems.

They have not reached a consensus. At the Selectboard meeting Tuesday, Houry spoke for the sewer users, while Susan Ford, a Woodstock resident, spoke for the septic owners. They each had 15 minutes before other residents could contribute.

“The overarching issue is how do you handle the financing of major and costly upgrades of environmentally, economically and socially critical town assets,” Houry said at the meeting, which was recorded.

The debate also centered on the wording of the town warning, which said “shall general obligation bonds or notes of the Town of Woodstock” be used to pay for the work. Houry emphasized that it contained no wording specifying that any subset of taxpayers would pay (sewage users already pay an annual fee for use and routine maintenance).

But Ford said that she did not even vote on the bond because she had been told that only users would pay.

“Is it really equitable,” she asked, “to have people not on a sewer pay that (and) have other residents and businesses support sewer users when the septic users have significant costs that they don’t get any help for, there are no grants, no town help, no other taxpayers helping you when your septic system fails?” She detailed the inconveniences and expenses of owning a septic system, from cleaning it out every few years to replacing it after its eventual failure.

Some residents said they shouldn’t have to pay for a facility they didn’t use, while others took a different view.

“We either have a town where people work in concert with each other, or what we have is essentially a bunch of people squabbling every time something comes up,” Roger Logan said.

Ford and other non-users argued that other towns habitually had only users pay; others contested that argument.

“We’re not other towns,” Riley said at the meeting. “Other towns have another sewer ordinance.”

In decades past, Riley remembers, the town paid for capital improvements to wastewater treatment facilities using a proportional split, with both users and non-users paying, but users paying more. The Selectboard unanimously voted to table the discussion until a later date.

In an interview Friday, Riley said she would be looking through the town records for more precise information about the town’s sewer ordinance. She said the Selectboard may take up the issue again at its second meeting in November.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.




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