Having no agreement is better than a bad agreement.
ST. ALBANS CITY — St. Albans City has declined to re-enter negotiations with St. Albans Town over the provision of water and sewer services by the city to the town. In a statement today the city cited a lack of trust between the two communities and the complexity of the issues involved.
The city’s response to a recent town statement leaves the communities in a stalemate that has the potential for further legal action and the continued enforcement of a city ban on water and sewer service hook ups within the vast majority of the town’s land area.
“In order to develop a long-term strategic alliance for the greater Saint Albans area that is fair and equitable for both the city and the town, it takes trust by and between both communities,” the statement added. “Trust has never been abundant between the two communities. The recent litigation on water and wastewater and acrimony surrounding the police contract has driven the trust factor to an all time low.”
The town had sued the city over a 2009 agreement for the sale of water and sewer allocations – an allocation grants the owner access to water and sewer services up to the purchased amount. Judge Dennis Pearson found that, because officials from the two communities had not had a shared understanding of the major provisions of the agreement at the time it was signed, no legally binding contract existed.
In response to that decision, the town announced last week that it may reopen a 2006 lawsuit settled, in part, by the agreement. The town had agreed to dismiss that suit “with prejudice,” which prevents the town from bringing the same allegations up again at a later time. Because a key part of the settlement – the 2009 agreement – is now void, town officials announced they would ask a court to set aside the “with prejudice” section of the settlement, allowing the town to reopen the lawsuit.
In the same statement, the town asked the city to end a moratorium on the sale of water and sewer allocations outside the city limits, stating: “The city previously imposed a moratorium on new water and wastewater hook-ups while we were mediating our differences. The selectboard believes that, with a willing participant, a resolution can be reached. Furthermore, with a dialogue reopened, the reason for the moratorium will disappear and the moratorium itself should be lifted.”
In their statement the city responded: “The city council understands the general frustration with the moratorium. However, the town’s request for the city to lift the moratorium is unrealistic at this time because it would eliminate the incentive for the selectboard to participate in a process to find solutions.”
The city also stated that renewed negotiations will require “a genuine recognition and acceptance of the complexity of the issues at hand.”
The city’s statement lays out the interests of both communities: “The Town has large amounts of land, tremendous development potential at Exit 19, in the industrial park; and at the Route 104 interchange. That land cannot be developed without city water and wastewater service. But with city water and wastewater, those development sites are a more attractive investment to potential industry and commercial business than city redevelopment sites.
“This would lead to further erosion of the City’s tax base and population, unless an agreement is structured to prevent it. The City taxpayers have invested tens of millions of dollars to create the water and wastewater infrastructure. Consideration of this investment must be part of any agreement.”
City officials also addressed criticism from the public, stating: “Recent letters to the editor have criticized town and city leaders for ‘acting like children’ on water and wastewater matters. Water and wastewater agreements are not child’s play. It would be easy to concede, let bygones be bygones, and go back to the old system. But it wouldn’t be leadership, it wouldn’t last, and the consequences could be dire for the city taxpayers. We need to get this right. Having no agreement is better than a bad agreement.”
The statement alludes to numerous efforts for the two communities to work together on fire protection, recreation, water and sewer, and police services. In the case of fire and recreation the town chose to withdraw from its working arrangements with the city. Last fall, the selectboard advocated that the town hire the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to replace the St. Albans Police Department operated by the city, even though the sheriff’s service was more costly. That change was rejected by voters.
The city’s statement concludes: “It is an understatement to say that city-town relations sound like a broken record playing the same old song over and over again. Time and time again, the council has unsuccessfully expended tremendous amounts of time, energy and dollars trying to figure out how we can be better neighbors. Before doing so again, we need to rebuild the relationship and establish trust. We remain ready to reconcile our differences and resolve our issues of distrust. We hope and expect that our counterparts in the town will join us.”