Even after Town Meeting, more costs ahead for Woodstock

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-22-2024 9:00 PM

WOODSTOCK — Pivotal municipal votes are on deck for Town Meeting Day and beyond in Woodstock, where pressing infrastructure needs could show up on special meeting ballots later this year as side-stepped deficiencies and deferred maintenance come home to roost.

On March 5, voters will consider the $8.02 million proposed town budget, with $6.6 million expected to come from taxes. The proposal is up from last year’s $7.68 million spending plan. The bump is expected to result in a municipal property tax rate increase of 6%.

If voters were to approve each of the funding appropriations on the warning requested by nonprofits, such as the Ottauquechee Health Foundation’s request for $30,000, the tax rate increase would be closer to 9%, said Selectboard Chairman Ray Bourgeois.

“Unfortunately, like many communities, we are facing extraordinary inflation rates as well as a history of underinvestment,” Bourgeois wrote in the town’s 2023 annual report.

On the school side, voters on March 5 also will consider a $99 million bond for a new Woodstock Union Middle and High School building. The current building has been in a documented state of disrepair for decades, and in 2022, the Vermont Agency of Education ranked the school as having the second-worst facility condition in the state and recommended total renovation.

Residents in the towns that comprise the Mountain Views Supervisory Union — which serves students from Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Plymouth, Pomfret, Reading and Woodstock — can view the impact the bond would have on various property values and household incomes at this link: https://tinyurl.com/bdf9fb79.

Or, for greater specificity, voters can use the tax calculator listed on the home page of the project’s website at this link: https://tinyurl.com/3ktbjaku.

Voters in the supervisory union also will be asked to approve a $30.4 million school operating budget, which is estimated to result in education spending of $17,043 per long-term-weighted equalized pupil. Last year, voters approved an operating budget of $25.84 million.

Voting unlikely to end on March 5

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After Town Meeting, two other big-budget items could be coming down the pipeline at taxpayers.

The wastewater treatment plant, completed in the late 1960s, is in need of extensive repair, and the town hopes to get a bond vote, estimated at between $20 million and $25 million, before voters at November general election.

Based on a 1986 sewer ordinance, the Selectboard is allowed to levy the costs of an upgrade to the wastewater system on residents who don’t actually use the system. But Bourgeois stressed that the board as not settled on a path forward, and that the way those costs will be distributed is still up in the air, as is the final cost of the upgrade.

At a January Selectboard meeting, Kirstin Worden, an environmental engineer with Hoyle, Tanner and Associates, consultants contracted by the town, walked through the facility’s issues. The aeration tank, which aids in the removal of contaminants from wastewater, is in “particularly bad shape,” Worden said, adding that the chlorine contact tank, which disinfects effluent before discharge into the Ottauquechee River, also isn’t meeting state standards.

The town has neglected the wastewater treatment plant “for so long,” said Director of Public Works Mark Hunter. Now new, fast-approaching state regulations around contaminants in effluent, among other standards, are poised to kick it out of compliance.

“We’re already pushing the limit at this plant to meet our current permit,” Hunter said. With rising material costs, “it’s my opinion that if we push back another year or two … (the cost) is going to go up another $1 or 2 million.”

Plus, there’s work to be done on the front end of the town’s water system.

On Tuesday, the Selectboard authorized the Municipal Manager Eric Duffy to conduct further review of the financial status of the privately owned Woodstock Aqueduct Company, as the town inches toward purchasing the deteriorating system that supplies water to over 770 users.

The Selectboard signed a letter of intent authorizing Duffy to contract for a third-party audit and to signal the board’s “continued interest in pursuing a transaction,” as well as its “decision to undertake a more detailed phase of due diligence … with the intent of negotiating a term sheet once such satisfactory review is substantially completed.”

There have long been deficiencies in water pressure that have hampered development in town, as well as the functioning of the town’s fire hydrants. The water system can’t maintain adequate water pressure in about a quarter of its hydrants while the town’s wells are running, which keeps the Woodstock Aqueduct Company out of compliance with state safety regulations.

The private company was brought back into public attention last July, when flooding ripped through service pipes and left residents without running water for 10 days.

“I never thought I’d be so happy to flush a toilet,” said Peggy Fraser, who lives off the village green.

She was frustrated with what she characterized as the lack of information from the utility during the service outage.

“This is a personal observation: A lot of times you don’t get answers from the village or the town because it’s a private company,” Fraser said. Shouldn’t, she added, residents “have oversight over what’s generally a public utility and is vital to the existence of the town?”

“Schools are important, water is vital and sewage is something you’ve got to deal with,” Fraser said of the mounting infrastructure needs. Still, in the potential purchase of the water system, she hopes that the residents have “full disclosure” of the “actual assets and actual liabilities” of the company.

Financial reviews have been done by a town working group created to investigate the possible purchase, as well as by a group of Harvard Business School students.

It’s “too early” to estimate a ballpark price that the town and company might land on in their negotiations, said Jireh Billings, the company’s president. He added that the system is currently between $800,000 and $900,000 in debt.

Because the company is privately held, it’s ineligible for many of the state and federal grants that public systems rely on to fund maintenance projects and offset costs for ratepayers, Billings said. And selling shares to outside investors has never appealed to current shareholders, who fear sacrificing local control.

“Most of the shareholders have felt that to allow the control of the water system to get outside of Woodstock would be a huge mistake,” he said.

Billings emphasized that, either way, the required fixes will be made.

“Although we’re really hopeful to keep working with the town,” Billings said, he has continued to manage the system as if this the town won’t purchase the company. The company is currently working with the state’s Public Utility Commission on a rate increase to fund maintenance of the deficiencies, he said.

“What was shown clearly in the Harvard study and elsewhere is that if we do that, we will never get the interest rate for those projects that the town could get,” Billings said. “So no matter what, this is going to be fixed, and the users are going to help pay for it. But it’s going to cost a lot less if the town buys it.”

‘Unfortunate’ timing

Of the water system and the wastewater treatment facility, both built more than four decades ago, “it seems like there’s been a lot of punting over the years,” Duffy, the municipal manager, said. Reinvestment in their functionality has long since petered out, “and now they’re really in dire straits.”

“We’re at a point where we don’t have a choice,” Duffy said. “For example, we’re not adding a spa or sauna to the wastewater plant; we’re just doing it so it can function.”

The timing of the colliding projects “is very unfortunate for everyone,” he said. But if voters don’t allow the town to act “soon,” he said, cost-wise “it’s going to be even worse.”

The town is working to find grants and other sources of funding to minimize the impact on residents and businesses, Duffy said, and he’s hoping voters will approve the 1% local option sales tax on the Town Meeting warning, which would tack a single percentage point onto the existing 6% state sales tax.

The money would be funneled back into an infrastructure fund, which could be used to help offset some of the costs of the capital projects.

“We’re very excited about it,” Duffy said. “Woodstock has a lot of tourism. They come in and use the roads, sidewalks, water, sewer. This would be a way to allocate some of these project costs toward them and off the taxpayer.”

Duffy has secured a $290,000 grant from the state that could help with the potential purchase of the company, and he said he’s been in touch with U.S. Sens. Peter Welch, a Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, an Independent, to help find federal funds to support the maintenance needs of the wastewater treatment plant.

Staring down the town’s infrastructure projects, Hunter, the director of public works, is largely undaunted.

“I’ve got a lot of experience with construction under my belt,” he said, adding that he was “honored” to have helped fix damaged roads after last summer’s flooding.

“If we were to purchase the aqueduct, it would fall in my lap,” Hunter said. “And I’ll say this: I’m looking forward to fixing it.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.