The holiday season might not be the best time for holding public hearings and voting on rate hikes.
That’s some how some local officials feel anyway, including a few of those on hand for a meeting of the Barrington, Bristol and Warren Town Councils Wednesday night.
The majority of the meeting focused on a presentation by Bristol County Water Authority Executive Director Pamela Marchand, which touched on everything from the agency’s new capital plan to its revenue requirements in coming years.
On Thursday night, after this newspaper went to press, the BCWA board of directors was scheduled to hold a public hearing on a potential 12 percent rate hike for next year.
Bristol Town Council Chairwoman Mary Parella said this time of year is a busy one for many people and the public may be best served by hearings later in January.
“Who’s paying attention?” Ms. Parella asked.
“That bothered me more than anything else. I feel like this is being pushed through because no one is paying attention.”
Fellow Bristol Town Council member Halsey Herreshoff agreed, and Barrington town councilor Bill DeWitt raised a similar concern at a regular meeting of that board Monday night, Dec. 17. He advocated for slowing down the process.
“This feels like you’re trying to do this in the dark of night,” Mr. DeWitt said to BCWA board of directors chairman Allan Klepper.
BCWA officials say it’s all about timing.
The BCWA’s fiscal year begins in March though it is expected there will be difficulty getting a full board of directors together in late January or February. One director, for example, is reportedly heading out of the country for a few months.
The BCWA board of directors is currently slated to vote on the potential rate hike on Wednesday, Jan. 9.
The agency’s current by-laws dictate that a budget or rate hike must be approved by a super majority of the board — at least seven of its nine directors.
Why the BCWA needs a rate increase
Ms. Marchand said the BCWA has identified five goals in the agency’s new strategic planning including maintaining a secure source of high quality water, adopting a plan to support long and short term infrastructure needs, improving management systems, ensuring financial stability and improving customer relations.
Ms. Marchand said all of the goals are interconnected though the agency isn’t in a “good financial situation” currently and nothing can be accomplished until that is remedied.
The BCWA hired a consultant earlier this year to conduct a rate study. The consultant’s report identifies the need for a revenue bump of 12 percent next year followed by four years of 4 percent annual increases.
Ms. Marchand said these funds with help implement several measures contained in the BCWA’s capital plan including new control and data collection instrumentation, pump stations renovation and water tank maintenance and mixing systems. The plan also calls for the cleaning and lining more than 60 miles of water mains over the next 20 years.
Additionally, the BCWA wants to move its redundant supply off pipes connected to Massachusetts and onto a new connection with Pawtucket through East Providence.
Ms. Marchand said a study has been commissioned to examine the project. She also said Pawtucket has a new distribution system with excess supply that could accommodate both East Providence and the East Bay.
But Ms. Marchand said the BCWA needs some help to make this happen. For starters, she said the Bristol County Water Supply Act mandates maintenance of the redundant supply in Massachusetts and the state would need to amend this legislation to allow for the move to Pawtucket.
Ms. Marchand said the BCWA also wants the state to re-allocate $6.9 million of bond funds slated for the Massachusetts system to the Pawtucket connection project.
The BCWA’s water treatment plant is currently in use one day a month and would reportedly be available in case of emergency.
Not everyone, however, was so enthusiastic about the move.
Warren town councilor Catherine Tattrie questioned whether Pawtucket would be able to “cut off” BCWA from water if the agency objected to future rate hikes. Ms. Marchand responded that rates are set by the PUC and Pawtucket wouldn’t be able to do this unless a catastrophic emergency occurred.
Ms. Parella said she would like more information about the Pawtucket supply and its cost before abandoning the current redundant system while Warren town councilor Joseph DePasquale asked what it would take for the BCWA to invest in the Massachusetts reservoirs and begin selling water again.
“I look at a lot of cars before I buy one,” Me. DePasquale said.
Ms. Marchand said such a move could cost as much as $60 million, it would require extensive renovations to the current 1908 treatment plan and likely three times the rate hike currently on the table.
Barrington town councilor Ann Strong questioned why the BCWA would even have to exist if water was being supplied through Providence and East Providence.
Ms. Marchand replied that most water companies operate a distribution system and find it cheaper to purchase water. Ms. Marchand also said Providence’s main concern is Providence though it could be viable down the road to purchase water with East Providence.
Warren town councilor David Frerichs asked about the cost of new BCWA employees.
Ms. Marchand said the hiring of a management information systems director and a project manager — estimated to cost ratepayers $60,000 to $70,000 each year — are both slated to occur within the next fiscal year. She said the MIS director will run all of the new information and data systems set to be installed while the project manager will oversee more than $35 million of capital work scheduled for the next decade.
Ms. Marchand said the project manager is less expensive compared with hiring consultants.
“There’s an awful lot of work to do,” Ms. Marchand said.