Milton town officials are planning to hold a second referendum in as many years Saturday, April 13, to ask residents to approve the borrowing money from the state to upgrade its aging water system.
Officials are confident they are resolving many issues that led to last year's failed attempt, mainly 44 million gallons of missing water annually, and the public is now better informed of the town's needs.
“The town has done a lot of work,” said Steve McCabe, an engineer with Pennoni Associates. “We haven't had enough meter readings since the repairs have been made to really have what I would consider to be trustworthy numbers. But the town has made an overall effort to improve how it handles its operations.”
He said the clean audit the town received at last month's town council meeting will also improve the town's standing for handling a loan from the state.
Milton officials originally planned to apply to the State Revolving Fund to borrow $1.725 million. The scope of the work would include the renovation or replacement of an offline well on the grounds of the Tidewater wastewater treatment facility on Front Street. Getting the well up and running would relieve stress on the town's other three wells, which ran up to 21 hours a day last summer. At more than $800,000, needed well work is the primary reason for the loan.
A new water main is also planned to connect the Wagamon's West Shores community with Federal Street, eliminating dead-end mains and providing a third avenue for water to pass from the north to south end of town. Construction would cost about $350,000.
Added into the plans more recently is the repair of the 75,000-gallon water tower in Shipbuilder's Village. Last May, it was discovered the concrete foundation of the tower was cracked and chipping. Officials expect the repair to cost about $100,000. An additional $50,000 to integrate a new control system and $196,000 for a 15 percent contingency are also included in the loan.
If approved for the 20-year loan, the town estimates an annual payment of $100,395, including the 1.5 percent interest rate. McCabe said the build-out time for the project would be about 20 months – six months for planning and a little longer than a year for construction.
At the March 4 town council meeting, Town Manager Win Abbott suggested council consider removing the water tower repair from the application and instead fund the work with reserve money available in the water department's budget. He said it would lower the cost to residents.
“At first blush, the repayment per customer I think would've exceeded the threshold of pain for our average customer,” he said.
By funding water tower repairs using reserve funds, Abbott estimated Milton would need to borrow a little less than $1.6 million. Assuming the state does not grant any principal forgiveness, he said the town would repay nearly $93,000 per year, likely resulting in rate changes in the impact, availability and usage fees. While council has final say, Abbott suggested the impact fee – a charge for every new customer to the system – be increased from $1,450 per unit to $1,950. The availability fee could increase from $35 per quarter to $42 and the usage fee from $3 per thousand gallons to $3.89. The availability and usage fees are quarterly charges levied on all customers.
Abbott also worked out a scenario in which market conditions reduce construction costs with a 5 percent principal forgiveness from the state. The amount the usage fee would increase would likely be less in that scenario.
However, as more homes are built and connect to the system, Abbott said, the cost would likely decrease over the years. Many factors could affect the final tally, he said.
McCabe said Milton's project is ranked seventh on the state's priority list. Projects that are closer to shovel-ready are likely to receive funding, he said. Holding public hearings and setting a referendum date keeps the project high on the list, he said.
Even if the referendum passes, Milton's water-use allocation requirement from the state will likely remain the same. The town is allowed to draw up to 500,000 gallons of water from the aquifer each day. On many occasions during the summer, Milton goes well above its allocation. However, there is no penalty for doing so. In McCabe's report to council, he recommended the town consider asking for a higher allocation, something the town may consider in the future.
Many residents in attendance at the Feb. 26 and 28 public hearings suggested the town consider better water conservation methods, such as allowing irrigation wells, limiting water usage in the summer and changing code to require low-flow toilets.
Since last year's failed referendum, the town has taken many steps to find the unaccounted-for water. Abbott said the 98 percent of buildings that consume water now have meters, up from 90 percent last year. He said he expects that number to be 100 percent soon. Some older meters were recording consumption at a rate about 11 percent less than what was actually being used. Those meters were replaced, he said.
On the production side of the operation, it was discovered some water was leaking back into the wells. New check valves were installed to more accurately record the pumped water. It was also discovered the type of meters used at the wells are more often used at wastewater facilities, so new meters have been purchased and will be installed in the next month, Abbott said.
The town previously did not record water-loss events, such as flushing the fire hydrants, another source of missing water. Combined, he said, all the factors contributed to a high amount of unaccounted-for water.
“There are many parts to this puzzle, but we've been working diligently to make it more accurate all the time,” Abbott said. “The past records will be indicative of the fact that we were not very good at accounting for our water loss.”