berlin municipal water project Select Board gets mixed news
BERLIN — An income survey that will determine whether the town qualifies for the favorable financing it needs to advance plans for a municipal water system in Berlin was the subject of a good-news-bad-news report to the Select Board this week.
The good news?
Data collected from the shrinking number of households that could be served by the system suggest a median income that is well within the range needed to qualify for either state or federal financing that would make the $5.5 million project instantly affordable.
The bad news?
It appears increasingly unlikely that the income survey will generate the 87 percent response rate that both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are looking for — and may require — before agreeing to help finance the project.
After a series of mass mailings and some door-to-door fieldwork, Shaun Fielder, executive director of the Vermont Rural Water Association, said voluntary participation in the survey has barely cracked 50 percent.
As of Monday, only 31 households, or 53 percent, of the 59 targeted households had provided the income-related information needed to complete the survey, according to Fielder. Seven more, or 12 percent, had refused despite repeated assurances that providing the information would assist the town while committing residents to nothing.
If the refusal rate ticks up any higher, Fielder said, obtaining responses from 87 percent of the households in the proposed service area would become a mathematical impossibility. As it is, he said, based on a weekslong process that has involved extensive outreach and in many cases multiple face-to-face conversations, getting close to that number will be a challenge.
“There’s a challenge moving forward to achieve this 87 percent (return rate),” he said, explaining fieldwork will likely wrap up this week.
Based on the sample size that dropped from 89 to 59 households, Fielder said, the USDA has been “very clear” about the need to achieve an 87 percent response rate. Although officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation haven’t been quite as adamant, he said, they have indicated they want to see something approaching that number.
If that isn’t possible, Fielder said, all bets are off.
“We’re at the mercy of the funding agencies, whether or not they’re going to accept the survey information,” he said.
Based on the data in hand, Fielder said that would be unfortunate.
The median income of the 31 households that have completed the survey is just over $45,000, roughly $12,000 below the $57,328 figure that represents the upper limit of eligibility for obtaining a 20-year negative-interest loan from the USDA. It is also well below the $56,832 median income needed to qualify for favorable financing from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
Based on what he characterized as “exceptionally favorable data,” Tom Willard, chairman of the town’s water supply committee, suggested local officials could make a compelling case that the survey should be accepted even if the response rate is less than the agencies have indicated they would like to see.
Based on the town’s own estimates for a municipal water system that would serve the Berlin Four Corners area, obtaining favorable financing from either the state or federal government is crucial to keeping annual water costs for homeowners at $500 to $600.
Gary Beem, who serves on the water supply committee, said a more conventional 20-year state loan would likely bump annual water costs to $1,000 per user and could derail the project that voters narrowly approved in February.
“Yes, you could have a project,” Beem told the board. “Is it a feasible project? I’m not sure that at $1,000 per user we (would) want to go forward.”
In addition to 59 homes, the town’s elementary school, its municipal office building, the local volunteer fire station and the Berlin Mall are all in the area that would be served by the water system. The service area includes portions of Airport, Crosstown, Comstock, Fisher, Granger, Scott Hill and Shed roads, as well as the full length of Industrial Lane and a short section of Paine Turnpike in the vicinity of the Route 62 intersection.
Among other things, the system would involve the installation of an estimated 31,500 linear feet of water line and a 400,000-gallon water storage tank and pump station that would be near the three town-owned wells on Scott Hill Road.
In addition to resolving long-standing problems with contaminated drinking water supplies in the area, town officials believe that providing a reliable and affordable source of drinking water would be a catalyst for economic development.
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