Berkshire Village Residents Regroup After Water Project Setback
The Berkshire Village Cooperative Water District has been in existence for nearly 100 years and operates its own water system for about 35 homes in the village.
But, its equipment is aging and five years ago the state Department of Environmental Protection issued an order asking for significant upgrades to the system.
Co-op President Lori DiLego said while the water itself is perfectly fine, the DEP wanted a new pump house building, a water tank, and new lines. The first estimates the group received came in at $5 million, a burden DiLego said was too much for the residents to bear and too much for the district to take on as debt.
Fresh off expanding a water line to Ore Bed Road, former Town Manager Paul Sieloff then brought a new idea to the district. He proposed that the cooperative merge with the Water District and that town would apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to expand the district into the village. That plan would eliminate the need for a new pump house and water tower to reduce the total cost.
Town meeting approved spending $8,000, a total matched by the cooperative, to bring on engineers Tighe & Bond to work on the plan. The engineers came back with an estimate of about $1.7 million.
Sieloff said he looked at the USDA program and the state's Clean Water Trust Fund for financing and ultimately the USDA program matched better. Sieloff said as much as 50 percent of the total cost could be given as a grant and the rest as a low-interest loan and he submitted the application.
"We followed every rule that they had at the time," Sieloff said.
In December, however, Town Manager Kelli Robbins was contacted by a representative from the USDA saying the application wouldn't be approved and suggested withdrawing it. The main issue was that the town didn't own the project and was applying on another entity's behalf.
"We were asked to withdraw it so we wouldn't be denied," DiLego said.
On Thursday, officials from the town, the Water District, and the cooperative met with residents in the village and Tighe & Bond to figure out the next steps. The Water District and the cooperative have been somewhat in the dark on the issue because shortly after Robbins' notification, the federal government was shut down and the USDA representatives weren't available.
"We are trying to find a vehicle to get the money the grants and loans together to fund this project," said William Prendergast of the Water District.
The particular issue now is keeping the residents together. The 35 households had signed an agreement expressing interest in the project but didn't want to commit until they knew the total cost impact.
As the system continues to age, many are growing frustrated and considering giving up on the waterline and putting in wells instead. Residents expressed concern that if the system fails they'd be without water and their homes possibly condemned.
Water District attorney Mark Siegars estimated costs for homeowners could run from $1,200 to $2,500 per year depending on grants.
However, that is as long as all 35 people are on board. For every resident who opts out of the plan, that is one fewer sharing in the cost burden.
"You're making it very difficult for everybody else," Prendergast said of those looking to bow out of the project.
Siegars believes the application could be eligible for consideration provided there is a town meeting vote authorizing the town to borrow the money, that there is an agreement in place outlining that it would be operated and maintained by the Water District, and that an agreement is in place from the residents saying they will pay for it.
At that point, Siegars believes the project can move to the next step and he hopes the federal legislators, including U.S. Rep. Richard Neal who now chairs the Ways and Means Committee, and can help usher it along.
"These are issues we can work around without radically changing the application," Sieloff, who made a trip back to Lanesborough to attend the meeting, said.
Sieloff said the intent was always to have the town own the system, have it be maintained by the Water District, and paid for by the residents in the cooperative. The cooperative would no longer exist when all is said and done, but the homes would be linked to that debt until it is paid off.
"It was really a win-win situation," Sieloff said. "At this point, we need to find a way through this application process."
It appears that much of the legal agreements will have to be crafted and signed. But, nobody is comfortable doing so without knowing the grant amount.
The residents don't know what it will cost them in the end, so they don't want to sign on the bottom line just yet. Board of Selectmen Chairman John Goerlach said his reluctance to signing the paperwork is about liability. He doesn't want to sign the paperwork and then have DEP hold the town responsible for making more upgrades to the system.
Goerlach and Selectman Henry "Hank" Sayers vowed to ask Robbins to move the application along and requested that residents sign commitment letters soon. To alleviate concerns about the system failing while this process moves forward, Goerlach promised that if that happened the town would step up and bring above-ground water lines to the households in an emergency situation.
Prendergast pleaded with the residents to hang in there because of the importance of having every household share in the cost. He said there is no other choice but to repair the system and believes this plan remains the best.
Tags: drinking water, USDA, water district,
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