News

City water district eyes ARPA funding

VERGENNES — Officials from the Vergennes-Panton Water District are researching the extent and cost of needed upgrades to the water lines that serve more than 5,500 customers in five communities — and they are looking to those communities for help in paying for the work.

District Superintendent Jonathan Deming said cast iron district water pipes that date back to the 1930s will be the primary focus of an ongoing engineering study.

“We’re talking with an engineering firm about out project needs, and we’ve had a hydraulic analysis and identified a couple projects. But that’s only a couple where there could be many,” Deming said. “We’re just trying to figure out what are the priorities. But currently I think we’re mainly talking about replacing pipes.”

Newer district pipes, he said, are made of longer-lasting ductile iron or more modern C-900 plastic and probably pose less of a concern. The district does have a clear picture of which lines run where and what they are made of, Deming said.

“We know which lines are which lines,” he said.

Ideally, Deming said the district could replace all of the cast iron lines, but the cost might be prohibitive. That’s why they hope Vergennes, Panton, Ferrisburgh and Waltham will consider passing along to the district some of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding they will be receiving in the months to come to complement a bond.

“We would like to, but it’s way more expensive than we can afford right now,” he said “It’s trying to understand how much we can do with the money we have. We would still have to borrow money to do any kind of major upgrade, but certainly if we were able to get any kind of ARPA money it would go a long way to reducing the amount we would have to borrow.”

And he said, the less the district has to borrow for a bond of a yet-unknown amount, the less the district rates will have to increase, or the more old pipes that can be replaced, or both. Therefore, Deming said, regardless of where pipes end up being replaced, all Vergennes-Panton ratepayers will benefit from the final project design.

“If we have to borrow more money, then we would have to have a higher rate increase to pay the bond back,” Deming said, while acknowledging the district’s first significant rate hike in almost a decade is probable.

Deming and district board members have thus had preliminary discussions with Vergennes officials and selectboards in Panton and Ferrisburgh about receiving a share of those communities’ American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

Officials in all those towns have so far adopted a wait-and-see approach. They want more details from the district about its plans before they commit funding.

“We’d love to help them, but we need more data,” said Vergennes City Manager Ron Redmond, whose community will receive about $772,000 in total, but also is eyeing a major sewer upgrade.

“We’re going to have to be very mindful and thoughtful about how we use it, because it’s once-in-a-lifetime money.”

The district asked for half of Ferrisburgh’s $804,000 of ARPA funds.

“We want to see the maps of who they serve,” as well as other information, said Ferrisburgh selectboard Vice Chair Clark Hinsdale.

The water district is working with Hoyle, Tanner & Associates, the same firm working with Vergennes on its sewer system upgrade, and Deming said its engineers are helping him with a presentation to explain its needs to the communities.

“I’m working on something I’m going to review with the board. The board wants to go back and talk to Ferrisburgh and some of these other towns to be part of the discussion,” Deming said. “I have provided them with a lot of information already, but I think the board would like to go talk to them.”

STAKE IN THE DISTRICT

Certainly, all the towns involved have a stake in the Vergennes-Panton district, which serves a more than 2,000 “units.”

Using the average people per unit served, per district estimates, that translates to roughly 3,330 customers in Vergennes, 880 in Panton, 1,160 in Ferrisburgh (not counting a separate Ferrisburgh fire district for which it supplies water), 195 in Waltham, and a dozen in Addison.

Current rates in Vergennes and Panton are $96.60 per quarter for up to 18,000 gallons, and then $2.62 per each 1,000 gallon used above that total.

Out-of-district users pay $127.50 per quarter for up to 18,000 gallons, plus $2.91 per each 1,000 additional gallon.

Those rates have increased little since they roughly doubled about a decade ago, when voters in Vergennes and Panton backed a $5.1 million upgrade to the district’s water-treatment plant on Lake Champlain, which is on Adams Ferry Road in Panton. Deming said that work leaves the plant still in good operating condition.

Upgrade funding options are somewhat limited to straight bonding. For example, Deming said although the city of Vergennes qualifies for USDA backing for its sewer project, Panton and Ferrisburgh do not because of their citizens’ higher per-capita incomes. Thus, that and other similar sources of support are not available to the water district.

“Nobody likes to give money for infrastructure work, except if you are a community that has a population that has a lower income,” Deming said.

“When we did the plant upgrade, they said Vergennes by itself would probably qualify for grant money, but Panton and Ferrisburgh put you out of the picture. Essentially, I’m saying we can’t get grant money from the state or USDA or anybody on infrastructure. The only time we have a chance of getting grant money is through these ARPA funds.”

A state revolving loan fund is one source of bond funding, and Deming said Hoyle, Tanner will design the upgrade with that in mind because state officials will thus play a role in deciding if the Vergennes-Panton effort is a priority.

“We’re going to be talking to the engineers to determine what is the best project for us to be working on, and then put that package together and submit it to the state, as far as the state saying we can help Vergennes-Panton Water fund the project because they have so much money in the state revolving fund,” he said.

Deming also pointed out that even if lines don’t end up being replaced in a specific community, its water users will still benefit because the entire system will be upgraded, and the ARPA funding will help keep bond payments, and thus sewer fees, lower.

“Everybody wants to see the work is done in their community. But a lot of these pipes feed their community, and they don’t understand if they’ve got to be fixed in Vergennes how that affects their community,” he said.

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