Cheshire Mulling Water District Development

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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The board is researching transforming the water department into a district, but the process could be long and expensive.

CHESHIRE, Mass. — Town officials are researching the option of turning the Water Department into a district, but the transfer may not be beneficial.

Town Administrator Mark Webber said he has been talking to the Massachusetts Rural Water Association about the possibility.

The government-funded agency, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture, provides technical assistance to rural water departments in Massachusetts.

Webber said the idea came from the Water Department, which asked to have an investigation of the pros and cons of changing to a district. The item will be up for a vote during the next town meeting, accompanied by a summary of the pros and cons of the conversion.

He does not think the conversion will be beneficial for the town. A price must be placed on all the department assets, and a transaction must be made from one entity to the other. He said decommissioning of the watershed lands and the creation of proper legislation would add to the process that could probably cost the town near $1 million.

"What’s the point for just the sake of calling it a district as opposed to a department, and who is going to come up with the million dollars?" Webber asked.

The process is long and expensive and could take upward of two years to complete, he said.

"It's a pretty involved process and would take a couple of years," he said.

Webber said it does not make sense to make the conversion, and there has not been one since the 1980s. A district is a separate taxing authority and can be sued and can sue. A department is part of the town and can't be sued.

"It's a very rare occurrence to convert a working town department into a district," Webber said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to convert from an existing departmental operation to a separate government entity, and you are essential setting up another whole government within town government."

Webber said he thinks the idea of changing to a district was prompted by the town being sued in the past. The water department took land to build wells and because it was a department, the town was sued instead. The town lost, and taxpayers were responsible for paying the claim. Webber said townspeople who were not water department users were uneasy about paying.

Whether not the department converts to a district, he would recommend creating an enterprise fund account. He explained that the department closely follows enterprise accounting now, but it should be formalized.

He said enterprise accounting would better track all costs, depreciation of assets, recognition of inventory, and all of the direct and indirect costs of the operation. He recommended adding this warrant to the next town meeting.

"It's a cleaner more precise accounting of what you are doing," Webber said. "The world doesn't change when doing this, and there are no additional costs."

The issue had been brought up at last week's Selectmen's meeting. The board had also discussed filming its meetings and decided it would be too difficult to because of tight space.

Northern Berkshire Community Television it would be willing to train a local person to operate the camera. But the Selectmen believe the meeting room to be too small to operate a camera.

"There has been a lot of letters to the editor saying we need to be on TV, but it just doesn't work here," Selectman Paul Astorino said.

Although the meetings could be relocated, the selectmen prefer to have them in Town Hall so they have access to town records. The issue had been raised prior this week's town election; several candidates, including new Selectman Robert S. Ciskowski, spoke about greater transparency and communication with public.

"I think we do more of a service to the town by being here then on television," said then board member Carol Lewis last week. "That’s my opinion."

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