“Where did you get this information?” Ferrazza asked Raslan in reference to the letter, which stated that the fire district had “narrowly voted (three for with two against) to unilaterally terminate contracts with owners of parcels of land who have reserved and paid for the right to connect to the sewer system” and “The purpose of this decision by NBFD is that they want to upgrade the existing sewer system and they do not have the money to do so.”
Raslan said he’d had his attorney look into it for him. Ferrazza said he felt it was important to go through the letter and explain what he saw as inaccurate, starting with the vote being recent and a 3-2 breakdown. “It was a unanimous vote, and it took place in April,” said Ferrazza. A vote on the matter is not referenced in the available minutes for the committee’s April 2017 meeting.
On the issue of terminating gallonage contracts, prudential committee member Brendan Ryan said, “There is substantial gallonage that is tied up in fixed allocations, some of which has been sitting for 30 years. The plant has a fixed capacity. So we’ve said people need to either use it or forfeit it, and the board is moving toward if you don’t want it, we are refunding, which frees up the gallonage for future projects.”
Ryan said when a new project begins, it is given an initial 18-month gallonage contract with the fire district. “When that contract is up, the board gives the user the option to re-up that contract for one more time — an additional 18 months — for the same rate.” At the end of that three-year period, said Ryan, if the project is not complete, “whatever is left to renew, you either forfeit or you come up to the current rate.”
The hookup fees for the fire district have long been a source of debate. Tensions about the fees came to a head at a special meeting of the prudential committee on August 24. According to minutes for that meeting, Ferrazza moved to increase the hookup fees for the district to $40 per gallon, which Ryan and prudential committee member Karl Braunbach strongly opposed. That vote — not the vote to ask holders to use or forfeit dormant gallonage and receive a refund — was a 3-2 vote, with chair Cyndee Frere breaking the tie. At the time, Braunbach said he was livid that the vote had happened under “other business” rather than being warned on its own, and Ryan said he felt he was being strong-armed into a two-year decision that he felt was ridiculous.
However, Ferrazza said at Thursday’s meeting, hookup fees are not to be used for upcoming much-debated repairs to the system, as Raslan’s letter stated. “We’re not upgrading the system, we’re repairing the system,” said Ferrazza, adding that the district is seeking a bond for those repairs, and that the funds collected for hookup fees are not used for anything until a project is completed. “That money goes into a liability account and sits in that account until the project is finished,” said Ferrazza. “When you finish your project, that money goes into capital.”
Lastly, Ferrazza said Raslan’s petition incorrectly stated the committee had “voted to terminate the price guarantee and impose a substantially higher price, and has voted to return the price originally paid to the original owner, regardless of whether they are the current owner.”
“That’s not true,” said Ferrazza. “If you bought a piece of property from the original owner, we’re assuming you paid for that gallonage from the original owner. Any check that goes back, goes back to you, not the original owner. so it would be the current owner.”
Jumbled details notwithstanding, Raslan said the hookup fees associated with new construction are prohibitive and may stall new development in the area. Contractor Scott Dupuis, whom Raslan is a client of, echoed Raslan’s concerns. “The hookup fee is part of the construction budget,” said Dupuis. “And I do think you get deferred clients that could be purchasing land and building homes in this valley that are not doing that because of the hookup fees.”
Ferrazza said the plant needs more money to operate. Ryan said following a recent conversation with plant engineer Ed Floyd, he worried that by trying to raise revenue, they may drive business away, creating an opposite effect.
Ryan, who according to minutes for the August 24 meeting said $40 is “substantially too much and it singles out the large users,” presented a document he compiled after researching hookup fees in 40 towns around the state and said he was “blown away” by how the North Branch Fire District’s fees stacked up against the rest.
The document included a 20-year projection for the overall cost of use, including hookup fees, for an average three-bedroom home. The projected cost for North Branch Fire District was $48,949. North Branch Fire District was the highest number, with the next highest being Glover at $35,817. The average overall for all 40 towns was $16,816.
“I’m hoping that this spurs some useful conversation on how our plant operates and where we’re operating relative to everyone else,” said Ryan. “It may be that we have the most expensive plant in Vermont to operate, and if that is the case we need to look at that.”
Braunbach said in his own personal experience, the hookup fees were prohibitively high for new construction. “We do a lot of things that are not necessarily friendly and it is a relevant and important conversation,” said Braunbach.
Ferrazza said being unfriendly had nothing to do with it. “I am not trying to be unfriendly when I bring (the hookup fee) to $40. I am looking at other things,” said Ferrazza. “The reality is if we don’t take in what we need, this plant can’t operate. I’m not trying to be unfriendly or unreasonable. But you want to see a ghost town? See what happens when the plant shuts down. Not that it will ever happen, but there’s your ghost town.”