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Vergennes seeks $25M sewer bond

“I think the sewer rates we’ve been charging have been lower than they should have been. Clearly we’ve been undercharging to maintain the system we have now, and the system has become beyond function.”
— Dickie Austin

VERGENNES — With the expectation state and federal grants could pay for up to half of the cost, the Vergennes City Council on Tuesday decided to put a $25.5 million bond proposal on the city ballot in March that if approved would fund a complete overhaul of the city’s troubled sewer collection system and treatment plant.

If city officials’ and consultants’ optimism about grant support is rewarded, most Vergennes sewer users would see an annual increase over the next few years from $500 to $850 to fund bond payments, according to official estimates.

Those bond-related increases would not be immediate, and most would be phased in as work is completed, according to officials.

The Tuesday decision came after months of discussion among council members, City Manager Ron Redmond, Treatment Plant Operator Rick Chaput and Public Works Director Jim Larrow. They also reviewed research and recommendations from engineering firm Hoyle, Tanner & Associates.

The bond proposal comes during a funding environment that they said is as favorable now for sewer treatment projects as it has been in years and is likely to be for the foreseeable future.

Redmond told the council he believes the worst-case scenario is “we only get $12 million in funding.”

“We can do this,” he said. “I feel like we’re ready to go.”

Deputy Mayor Dickie Austin said “conservatively” it appeared that half the project would be paid for, and that now would be the “cheapest” possible time to fix the sewer system.

“(We can’t be) sitting on our hands and letting this environment pass us by when we have the ability to get this bond vote out there to the voters, and do our best to take on the responsibility of voter education,” Austin said.

Austin also spoke to one of the major problems, possibly the major issue, to be addressed by the $25.5 million project that could be completed over the next three to five years.

For years wastewater overflows — some measured in hundreds of thousands of gallons — have run into Otter Creek from the collection system’s Macdonough Drive pump station. And the single cast-iron main that runs under the river to the treatment plant is 60 years old.

That pump station becomes overwhelmed after heavy rains, largely because, according to Hoyle Tanner’s and earlier studies, the city’s hundreds of sump pumps feed into an aging collection system that includes clay and rusting cast iron pipes.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has repeatedly issued orders insisting that Vergennes solve a problem that contributes to Lake Champlain pollution.

“When we talk to people in our community they care that we are putting pollution into the river that’s going into the lake,” Austin said. “They care about the facility and the state that it’s in is beyond saving.”

His latter reference is to the city’s treatment plant on the far side of Otter Creek, which contains aging and dysfunctional equipment, overflowing wastewater lagoons, and a system of filters so ineffective that Chaput and his help have to use post-treatment holding tanks as an extra step in settling out the solids the plant fails to remove from the waste stream.

Hoyle Tanner representatives insist their plans will address these issues and more, and councilors on Tuesday agreed.

“I am 100% behind this project,” said Councilor Sue Rakowski. “The way this is structured with the rate increases is responsible.”

Councilor Mel Hawley, who has seen several sewer upgrades fail to solve the overflow problem during his decades as first city clerk and then city manager, was more skeptical about the engineering plans, if still hopeful.

“I don’t want to support a $25 million project with my fingers crossed,” Hawley said. “I’m not stomping my feet on a $25 million debt as long as it solves our problems.”

WARNING DEBATE

The debate during Tuesday’s meeting was on how to present the bond proposal to the public, with a focus on how to word the bond warning.

Hawley and Councilor David Austin favored a lower face value on the bond proposal to take into account at least $3.7 million the city has already nailed down for the project, most of which comes from Vermont American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds.

But Hoyle Tanner project manager Jennie Auster also said another $3 million earmarked by Sen. Patrick Leahy is “90%” secure, and has repeatedly told the council she is optimistic about another roughly $6 million of grants, including from such sources as the DEC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

If all those grants come through, the city’s share would be $12.4 million and could be funded by that gradual increase of the city’s annual sewer fees by $350, according to a handout prepared for the meeting.

In a Wednesday email to the Independent Hawley said the council should make sure that if the bond is approved, all the work is performed, and not all the grants come through, then that increase could be higher.

“Given the fact that grants are estimated to range from $3.7 million-$12.5 million, we should make that crystal clear to our citizens,” he wrote. “The sewer rate will be very different if the bond ends up being $21.8 million or $13 million. We should not be sending an FAQ to residents with projected rates of $830/year knowing that they could be way more.”

Auster said at the meeting there was also hope for more grant funding, particularly from USDA, that could bring the $12.5 million figure higher. And other councilors noted the fact that city rates are lower than in most other communities has contributed to the problems Vergennes now faces.

“I think the sewer rates we’ve been charging have been lower than they should have been,” Dickie Austin said. “Clearly we’ve been undercharging to maintain the system we have now, and the system has become beyond function.”

Mayor Matt Chabot joined those who said it was time to solve the persistent problems with the collection system and plant, even though, as Hawley noted, several earlier attempts had failed.

“We’ve heard of all the false fixes. We’ve tried this, and we’ve tried that. And I think that’s why I’m receptive to a $25 million project. Because I want it fixed,” Chabot said.

Councilor Ian Huizenga and Rakowski emphasized it would be important to make it clear to residents that the ballot item on the warning offering $25.5 million list price would not actually be the true cost.

“It becomes incumbent upon this body and city staff to educate ratepayers it’s not $25.5 million,” Huizenga said.

Redmond urged both councilors and residents alike to support the plan.

“It’s really the opportunity of a generation,” he said. “Vergennes has made it to the top of the list because it has a project that is viable, has needs to be addressed, and we’ve made a lot of progress with the engineering, the design. So we’re positioned well for funding.”

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