Now that Milton residents have voted against a referendum to borrow money in two consecutive years, town officials have to figure out what's next. Residents don't want the burden of increased water rates, but the town's water system problems still remain.
Last month, by a margin of 10 votes, residents rejected a referendum to borrow $1.725 million for various upgrades to the town's water system. The town's water committee met April 30 to discuss the next steps.
Committee member Jack Bushey, a former mayor, said many of the items the town's wish list are vital, and town council should consider paying for the improvements out of the proprietary budget, which encompasses all of the town's water activity and is expected to end fiscal year 2013 with a significant surplus.
He would like council to explore the idea of drilling a well in a new location to ease pressure on three existing wells, which run up to 21 hours a day during peak times. He also suggests looking into the feasibility of installing larger pumps to produce more water in less time.
To help maintain the reserves to pay for the projects, Bushey said, council should consider raising residents' water rates temporarily to generate extra money. This approach would not require a referendum.
“The council has to be responsible. They have to recognize there is a problem,” he said. “We, as a committee, are being neglectful if we don't tell council they need to do these things. We see these things as crucial elements they need to address.”
The committee voted to recommend town council move forward to repair the foundation of the water tower in Shipbuilders Village, an item included in the referendum. Last May, a public works employee discovered surface cracks in the concrete foundation of the 75,000-gallon tower were growing larger. Committee members are suggesting the town amend this year's budget to pay for the design phase of the project – about $17,000 – and then budget the rest – about $83,000 – in next year's budget.
“The voters said, 'no we don't want to borrow this money,' but then we have to come up with a creative way to [pay for the upgrades],” Bushey said. “A new well and fixing the base [at Shipbuilders] are two crucial necessities.”
Much work has been done over the last year to account for lost water, including leak testing, installing meters on buildings not charged for water and replacing older, inaccurate meters. New valves were also installed to prevent water already pumped from falling back into the well. Public Works Director Dustan Russum reported the amount of missing water is declining. Two million gallons less was pumped this April than in April 2012, suggesting last year's numbers were inflated by inaccurate meters, Town Manager Win Abbott said. By the end of June, a full quarter's worth of data will be available, Russum said.
Engineer Steve McCabe of Pennoni Associates said the town should strongly consider mapping the town's water system before moving forward with upgrades. The current map isn't accurate, he said, because it shows incorrect water lines, and some fire hydrants are missing completely.
“It will take some effort to put a map together, a real map that you can measure and scale and accurately quantify piping materials from so you know how many feet of main you need, what diameter pipe it is,” he said. “Having an accurate map of the system, I think, is a very important starting point for any of the improvements that we're talking about.”
He estimates a new model would cost less than $20,000.
Regardless of the importance of a new map, McCable said, the need for more water is still remains.
“The need for water is the big thing,” he said. “Regardless of what the numbers say, the pumps run wide open to meet demand, so there has to be more water generated by some means.”
Besides the recommendation to repair the Shipbuilders Village water tower, the committee did not move forward with any other recommendations to council. At the next water committee meeting, McCabe will return with better cost estimates to develop a new map, install a new well and replace the pumps at the wells. Committee members will then decide if they want to move forward with a recommendation.
“I feel like great strides have been made in the last year to not only account for the water but to ease the public's mind, even though this referendum didn't pass,” said committee chair Emory West. “It was not meant to pass. We just move forward and come up with a different plan and hope the people accept it.”