Plant upgrade turned down by only one vote
by Mike Eldred
Apr 13, 2017 | 3260 views | 0 0 comments | 178 178 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DOVER- North Branch Fire District Prudential Committee members will consider a revote on a bond for a proposed update of the wastewater treatment facility after their initial bond failed by just one vote.

District voters turned down the bond, 36 to 35, in an Australian ballot held March 28. According to district administrative manager Linda Holland, the vote was so close it was counted four times by four different ballot clerks. One ballot was deemed spoiled because the voter’s intent was unclear, but Holland said that, had the ballot been counted, it would not have altered the outcome of the vote. District voters also sent two new members to the prudential committee on March 28, electing challenger Brendan Ryan to a three-year term with 41 votes over incumbent Dan Facilla with 29 votes. Voters also elected Karl Braunbach to a one-year term on the board with 55 votes, and returned Eddie Barber with 46 votes. At their reorganizational meeting on Wednesday, April 5, prudential committee members elected Cindy Frere to serve as chair.

Committee members also discussed the results of the bond vote, and began to formulate their response. Sewer plant head operator Bart Howes said that, according to his discussions with state officials, a positive bond vote wouldn’t have locked in their subsidy or a loan rate. “We thought we could lock in the $500,000 subsidy if we had the bond vote, but that’s not the case,” he said. “We still need to have the final design, have it approved by the state, and have a positive bond vote.” The final design, he said, was scheduled to be done by late fall or early winter.

Howes also told committee members that the $500,000 subsidy has now dropped to $300,000. “That has nothing to do with the bond vote,” Howes said.

The board also discussed possible changes to their plan for raising money to fund the annual bond repayment. Howes said that the method proposed in March, which include a flat $65 charge on all users along with a grand list value-based assessment, had been the least expensive for most users “all the way up to a $400,000 house. The majority were going to pay less than what was initially proposed.”

At a public informational meeting in March, however, committee members said the split assessment, as opposed to a strictly usage-based assessment, reduced the burden on high capacity users, specifically mentioning Mount Snow. Several district residents at the meeting objected, calling on the board to raise the money through a usage-based assessment. Braunbach said the assessment method may have been the issue that shot down the bond. “I’ve been contacted by at least 10 people who voted the bond down because of the method of payment,” he said. “(One voter) was very blunt about assessing by gallonage, and voted no because it wasn’t based on gallonage. I have emails from a number of people.”

Braunbach said one of the emails suggested that the repayment method “subsidized” Mount Snow, one of the biggest users, a company that plans to pay investors a dividend this year. “I don’t know if that’s true, or if it’s fair, but that’s the mentality,” he said. “If we’re going to put this out, do we change the method of payment? If it doesn’t pass, we’re just going to have to pay more.”

Committee member Thomas Ferrazza questioned whether changing the assessment would improve their chances at the ballot box. “So we’re going to make a change. Now we’re getting those votes we didn’t get before. Who are we going to tick off?”

Braunbach suggested the committee prepare a table showing the impact of several assessment methods on typical properties, and let voters weigh in at an informational meeting. “I think a lot of people voted with their pocket, or maybe with what they perceived in their pockets. There were a lot of gallonage supporters.”

“Which was the opposite of what people said at the first informational meeting, which was don’t use gallonage,” noted Howes. “Then we looked at hooked-up people, and not-hooked-up people, and that didn’t fly.”

Braunbach pushed for an informational table to hand out to voters. “A simple half page,” he said. “Just so anyone can look at one of their old bills and say, ‘Oh, it’s going to go up by a half-cent per gallon.’ The (negative) vote wasn’t an issue of the bond, it was an issue of payment.”

District property owner Adam Levine said the committee needed to build trust with their constituents. “You need to acquire the confidence of those in the district,” he said. “It was hard for anyone to believe what you were pitching, when you have not had funding for capital improvements in place. You need to get the trust back, and that’s by making good financial planning decisions. Then reach out with some fresh proposal.”

But Ferrazza said, ultimately, all of the money comes from users. “We have to look at this logically,” he said. “Were not a business, we’re a municipality. We don’t make money. Without the users, we don’t exist. And without us, they don’t exist. Our money comes from the users, and the users are responsible for keeping this plant upgraded – we get the money from them. We’re saving money, but it isn’t coming in in a way that does us any good.”

Levine said fees should have been increased to fund anticipated needs. “You say there isn’t enough money coming in, but the board knew that and didn’t make an adjustment to the fees to accumulate the money they needed.”

Ferrazza said previous boards were controlled by developers “who were keeping the cost down” to benefit their projects. Howes said there was also a sentiment that current users shouldn’t be burdened by future repairs.

“Well, you’ve just burdened us,” said Levine. “And you asked for the bond after burdening us with $2 million in meters. But if you want to have the confidence of voters, just take responsibility instead of saying it’s the users.”

Frere said she agreed with Levine there was a lack of confidence, but she said the board can change the public’s perception. “Having a new board is an opportunity. I’m not blaming anyone, and there are three of us from the previous board, but we have an opportunity to move forward.”

“We need to work on an overall financial plan,” agreed Braunbach.

Like Braunbach, Ryan also suggested a handout for public meetings, one that would list the pros and cons of the proposed project. “This is what we’re proposing, and this is what we think could happen if we don’t do it. And if the (assessment) numbers aren’t wrong, then present them to voters. This is what we’re proposing and this is what it would cost you, with a two-bedroom house.”

Board members agreed to warn another bond vote, but decided they could wait at least until their Thursday, May 18, meeting to decide on a timetable for the vote and informational meetings.

“If we’re not going to have a final design until fall, I’d rather take more time and have a really finalized plan,” Ryan said.
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