WATER/WASTEWATER: City, Town talks to be open

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — The St. Albans City Council will appoint two or three of its members to meet with two St. Albans Town selectmen and discuss the town “buying in” to the city’s wastewater infrastructure.

The council listened to the outlines of that proposal from two town selectmen Monday night with all in the room highly aware of a long history of discord involved with such issues.

In the end, however, the council agreed to further talks but required they be held in public.

Selectmen Sam Smith and Bruce Cheeseman approached the council about the possibility of the town purchasing half of the city’s facilities with payments, over time, to the city’s general fund.

As the session got down to money matters, a question was raised about how the town might actually pay for such a large transaction.

“You’re not looking to us to fund this, are you?” asked Ward 1 representative Tim Hawkins, the only council member who did not express a willingness to discuss a sale with the town.

Town selectman Sam Smith indicated the town would like to make the annual payments to the city rather than put a bond issue before its voters. “Who’s going to service the bond?” he asked, rhetorically. “The taxpayers of St. Albans Town would never do it.”

 Smith indicated the town is considering it options. “We don’t think we can fund it with taxpayer funding, not entirely,” he said. Instead, he indicated the town might pursue something “user-based,” but was unwilling to discuss details.

“You have a system that you own,” said Smith to the council. “If it puts enough in your general fund, it may be worth it to you.”

“The city has the water and sewer plant. We have the need,” he said, adding the plant was sized to service both communities.

He asked the city to appoint two members “to sit with us and chuck this football around a little bit.”

The town, before getting a formal appraisal of the value of the city’s system, would like an estimate from the city of what dollar amount would make the sale an attractive option for it.

The purchase is just one option being considered by the selectboard, including building its own plant, explained Cheeseman. “In three to five years the town will be in the sewer business,” he said. “I’d like to see us work with the city.”

Just prior to meeting with Smith and Cheeseman, the council held a first reading on an affiliation fee ordinance that would end a moratorium on the sale of new water and sewer allocations outside the city limits.

Under the ordinance, things will remain the same for current users of the system in the town, but new users will be required to pay an annual fee of $0.28 per $100 of assessed property value to the city. City officials have long argued that access to its infrastructure has allowed the town to develop and grow its grand list with businesses such as the Ben & Jerry’s Premium, Ice Cream factory, with little recompense to the city.

The ordinance also lays out criteria for approving the sale of allocations outside the city, including whether the proposed project will have a negative impact on city businesses or could feasibly be constructed within the city limits.

“To be honest with you, we’re not a fan of your ordinance,” Smith told the council. “We think it will complicate things between the two communities.”

“We share in the economic prosperity of the area. We’re tied together,” said Smith. “We need to work together to grow together.”

Nearly every member of the council expressed a willingness to consider the sale, but also said they would move forward with the affiliation fee ordinance.

Mayor Liz Gamache was willing to appoint members to meet with Cheeseman and Smith, but only if the resulting meetings were open.

Smith balked, comparing the negotiation to negotiating the sale of a home, which the owner would want done in private. “We’re not saying this is going to be done in secrecy,” he said. “We might be able to be more specific in a more private setting.”

Two council members and a member of the public noted that unlike a private home, the wastewater facility is owned by the city’s residents and taxpayers. “The taxpayers of the city own the facility,” said Ward 2 representative Scott Corrigan. “They’re entitled to know everything about the facility.”

Smith countered the discussions could take place in private and then be announced to the public. “You’ve informed the voters,” he said.

Gamache said that while the council can move into executive session for real estate negotiations, the preliminary discussions should be open to the public. She was only willing to appoint council members on that condition.

Ultimately, Smith accepted those terms. Cheeseman had indicated he, too, preferred transparency.

The history of failed negotiations between the city and town is a long one. As Smith alluded to the wastewater plant was sized for the city and town when it was renovated in the 1980s using federal grant funds.

The intent was for the city and town to jointly own the plant. However, the town backed out of the deal, leaving the city to come up with all of the matching funds for the federal grant on its own. At that time, the town could have owned half of the plant for a mere $50,000, according to city records.

The moratorium, which will be lifted when the city gives final approval to the affiliation fee, began in 2011 after failed mediation in a lawsuit filed by the town over an agreement for the sale of water and sewer allocations by the city to the town. That agreement was, itself, part of the settlement of a 2009 lawsuit filed by the town against the city.

Smith individually lost a lawsuit against the city over water and sewer access for land he owns in the town.

That long and complex history will have to be overcome before any agreement can be reached.

In her final comments, Gamache noted that two central issues in the discussions will be the fair value of the city’s infrastructure and rebuilding trust between the two communities.

“I think fair value and trust are important factors to keep as common interests,” said Gamache.