In what appeared to be the final public hearing before a scheduled meeting next week on proposed water rate increases, the board of the Bristol County Water Authority met at Warren Town Hall on Thursday night.
Some 30 residents attended the session, with about a half-dozen addressing the board about the proposed rate hikes — 12 percent for fiscal 2013 and 4 percent in each of the next four years — and raising other issues about the tri-town agency's management.
At the start of the meeting, Executive Director Pamela Marchand spoke about the BCWA's strategic plan.
Currently, the BCWA is supplied by a single source, which Marchand said "puts us at risk," leading the agency to consider plans for a tie-in to the Pawtucket water system in 2018.
"We want the best, highest-quality water that we can serve to our customers," explained Marchand as she offered a 30-minute Powerpoint presentation. "We want to be a model water utility — that means we want to be customer-focused, we want to be efficient, and we want to be extremely reliable."
Marchand also outlined how the proposed rate increases would be spent, beginning with the 12-percent hike in FY13 that would raise $1.3 million in revenue.
About 34 percent of that money would pay for capital improvements, including cleaning and updating existing water lines in Bristol, Warren, and Barrington.
Marchand estimated that about 17 percent would fund an expected increase in costs to use Providence Water, with another 17 percent paying for three new staff positions.
"We are in very much need of another operator — we are very short on the distribution side for the amount of work we need to do," said Marchand, who added that an additional staffer is needed to oversee a "unidirectional flushing program," where certain supply valves are closed to allow a build-up of water pressure that "stirs up the iron sediment in the pipes and flushes them out."
That kind of system, which would replace the current practice of opening fire hydrants to get rid of the sediment, "is very personnel-intensive and takes a much longer amount of time," Marchand explained — but it would also allow BCWA to document the locations of all of the valves and input them into a new computer system that BCWA is also looking to purchase.
Another of the new positions would be for an Information Technology specialist who would oversee the upgrade of the agency's computer system.
Marchand also noted savings that BCWA expects from its recent union negotiatioins, which require new hires to enroll in 401(k) retirement plans and contribute one percent of their salary toward the agency's OPEB [Other Post-Employment Benefits] costs, and raises the contribution for health benefits to 20 percent for all employees.
As she had told members of the three town councils in December, Marchand repeated her contention that, without additional revenue from the rate increases, BCWA would run out of operating funds by the end of 2013.
Residents: Why the rush — and why so much?
A number of the attendees who spoke during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting asked the board why it was necessary to consider — and potentially approve — the rate hikes during the winter, and why a 12-percent increase is needed in the next fiscal year.
Steve Katz, a resident of Bristol, pointed to a plan offered by Marchand for the purchase of a backhoe, and questioned whether using contractors would save money.
"Does that make sense, as compared to hiring a construction company that has their own backhoe so you don't have to have your own backhoe, maintain it, and store it?" Katz asked.
"Yes, because that's what we're doing now — we have a company that does that for us, but anytime you want to do any little project, you have to call in the contractor to do that work, and it gets very costly," Marchand replied.
Frank Sylvia, a Bristol representative of the BCWA board, said he "wanted to approach the board as a ratepayer first" and noted that every $100,000 in savings would reduce the planned hike by one percent.
"You're looking at 12 percent, and I don't believe, personally, that we need an project manager-slash-engineer or an MIS [Municipal Information Systems] person," Sylvia said. "If we eliminate those two positions, in salary and benefits, we're probably talking about $200,000 — instead of talking about a 12 percent raise, you're looking at about 10 percent."
Marchand, though, said that if the "in-house" positions were not approved, "I will be asking for $300,000 for consultants" to do the same work.
Cathie Tattrie, a member of the Warren Town Council, brought up proposed spending on the creation of a new training room and storage facilities at the BCWA's office in Warren.
"Maybe you could go back and look at your numbers — there's got to be something that doesn't need to be done in the next five years so we're not getting hit with a 12 percent increase," Tattrie said. "This isn't going to help your PR, asking us for 12 percent after we were hit with 9 percent, after nine, after another nine, that was supposed to be 3-3-3."
Tattrie noted that the Warren Town Council recently trimmed the municipal budget, adding: "We cut 12 percent, right off the top — if we can cut 12 percent out of every single department in the Town of Warren, you guys can figure it out, too."
And Bristol Town Councilor Halsey Hereshoff asked the board to consider delaying its vote for at least another week or two to gather more public comment.
"This meeting proves the need to convey information — and you've done well in conveying it, but not every ratepayer is here — you've brought this forward during the Christmas season, and it probably wasn't your choice, and it's understandable that it took a long time to develop a good plan," Herreschoff said, "but the fact that it was brought forward in the Christmas season means it's very difficult for our citizens to know enough about it — I would beg of you to postpone, at least for a week of two, your vote, and to continue this process of disseminating the information."
Herreschoff also suggested that BCWA try to lower the proposed first-year increase, adding: "12 percent is an awful lot for people who are already in hardship, especially now during this recession."
With no further comment, board Chairman Allan Klepper closed the meeting at 7:50 pm, just under two hours after its start.
Earlier in the Thursday night session, Klepper confirmed that the board is planning to vote on the five-year plan on Jan. 9 at 5:15 pm at the BCWA office, 450 Child St., and that a supermajority will be required for passage.