The Bristol County Water Authority hosted a second public hearing on a potential 12 percent rate hike Thursday night though a portion of the evening ended up focused on a recent board of directors’ vote that some alleged to be a violation of state open meeting law.
On Thursday, Dec. 20, the board voted 5-2 in favor of maintaining Cameron and Mittleman as legal counsel. The vote marked the end of a months-long process that included seven responses to a request for proposals.
The board’s vote came after the BCWA’s first public hearing on the potential rate increase, which could be approved as soon as Wednesday, Jan. 9 and would take effect March 1.
Barrington resident Gary Morse, however, argued the vote was a violation of state open meeting law. The evening’s agenda included an item dubbed “RFP – Legal Services” under the “Business” section. Mr. Morse argued the topic was listed with this same description for months prior to the meeting when no vote was taken.
Barrington resident Jeff Black, meanwhile, questioned the legality of a board meeting on Dec. 18 that was not posted with the Rhode Island Secretary of State. The board reportedly interviewed five potential legal firms that night.
BCWA Executive Director Pamela Marchand said the agency has asked outside legal counsel to look at the Dec. 20 vote. Ms. Marchand also said the BCWA is not paying this outside legal firm, which she declined to identify.
“We want to take another look at it,” Ms. Marchand said.
BCWA Board of Directors Chairman Allan Klepper said the group was advised by another community’s legal counsel it did not have to post the Dec. 18 meeting because it was an internal working meeting. Mr. Klepper declined to identify the community.
Both Mr. Klepper and Ms. Marchand said the board would re-visit the issue if it is advised to do so.
As for the rate hike, a presentation supporting the potential move was largely the same as one delivered two weeks ago at the first public hearing and a meeting of the Barrington, Warren and Bristol Town Councils. The BCWA has adopted a strategic plan and a financial plan in support implementing several goals.
The 12 percent possible rate hike mirrors a revenue requirement identified in the strategic plan, which is followed by four consecutive years of 4 percent revenue increases.
A driving factor behind the potential increase is a system-wide capital improvement plan that includes everything from a 20-year cleaning and lining program to new mixing systems for storage tanks and new information systems, among other upgrades. The plan also calls for connecting to the Pawtucket water supply via a pipeline through East Providence. A preliminary study looking at the project is underway but isn’t expected to be done until August.
The plan also includes three new positions – an operator, a project manager and an information services director. Frank Sylvia, a BCWA director, addressed the issue as a resident. Mr. Sylvia said he doesn’t believe the BCWA needs either the project manager nor the information services director and eliminating these two positions would drop the 12 percent bump down to 10 percent.
Ms. Marchand said a consultant would cost as much as $300,000 to do the same job. Mr. Sylvia said he’d rather deal with that when the time comes than “front” the money.
Others called for the BCWA to sharpen its pencils, including Warren Town Council Cathy Tattrie.
“There’s got to be something that doesn’t have to happen in the next five years … This doesn’t help your PR,” Ms. Tattrie said.
“You’re just asking for an awful lot up front … Think creatively. If we can cut 12 percent out of every department in Warren, you guys can figure it out too.”
Ms. Marchand said the BCWA is operating at “bare bones.” She said the agency has worked to lower its expenses by re-financing debt at lower interest rates and negotiating a favorable union contract that includes post-employment benefit reductions, institutes a 401K for new hires versus a defined benefit pension and no pay raises for two years.
Other facets of the contract weren’t so well received, such as a clause that prohibit the layoff of any employee with more than 10 years of service. Director Ray Palmieri said this provision applies to all but three workers.
Another issue centered on the timing of the recent public hearings and the potential vote next week. State law requires a super majority of board members approve any rate increase, or at least seven of the nine directors but several board members are expected to be unavailable to vote on the matter later this month.
Bristol resident Jack Baillargeron said the board should hold off its vote to get more input, a sentiment echoed by Bristol Town Council Hershey Herreshoff.
Ms. Marchand said even if the board wasn’t facing an attendance constraint the latest any increase could be approved is late January. The BCWA’s fiscal year begins March 1.
Mr. Klepper said the potential rate hike has been a topic of public discussion for months and in decades of public service he has never seen a board working as “diligently” as the current group. Director Robert Allio said all of the BCWA’s planning sessions behind the strategic plan were open to the public.
Ms. Marchand said a location for the Jan. 9 board of directors meeting has not yet been determined.