Much attention has been given to races at the top of the ticket this election season.
But down the ballot, Colchester voters will be asked to consider more than $6 million in bonds to fund Champlain Water District projects, the state’s largest provider of treated drinking water.
If approved, CWD will use the money to pay for three separate projects: A twin filtered water tank and wet well expansion at the treatment plant site in South Burlington, a new 600,000 gallon water storage tank in Williston and improvements to transmission lines throughout the region.
CWD general manager Jim Fay said the district is paying off several existing bond debts in the coming weeks, making the new bonds rate-neutral.
In other words, the new projects will not affect CWD’s current uniform wholesale water rate – a constant financial goal, according to Fay.
“If life is perfect, you add new debt as the old debt is retiring,” Fay said.
CWD costs aren’t reflected in property tax bills, Fay explained, because CWD charges its 12 member municipalities a uniform wholesale price. Currently, the rate sits just below $2.04 per 1,000 gallons.
The district supplies water to a combined 75,000 residents in Colchester, Winooski, Shelburne, Jericho, South Burlington, Williston, Milton and Essex, according to Fay.
Those towns can then add a retail markup to the charge, Fay said. That’s the number folks see on their water bill.
The ticket price on the ballot may be shocking to some voters, but Fay said the facilities desperately need updates. Many of those improvements seek to create a back-up option for water storage.
“A lot of the infrastructure that is very costly is buried,” Fay said. “It’s kind of out of sight, out of mind.”
At the plant site, for example, just one tank stores the treated water for all CWD’s consumers. The facility is showing its age, with cracks showing up around the concrete edge. A sudden problem with that tank could lead to a crisis, Fay said.
“We can’t afford to be taking them out of service [to repair] them,” he said. “We always want to be in the position to supply consistently safe water around the clock.”
The district purchased an adjacent 2.4-acre lot from Green Mountain Power with capital improvement funds early last month. It will house an identical treated water tank, allowing CWD staff to fix up the current tower.
Additional preparation is also the aim of the transmission line improvements. A design called “looping” allows CWD to quickly funnel water to emergency personnel during a natural disaster, Fay said.
Fay said the district generally places bond items on the Town Meeting Day ballot in March. This year, they moved to the November ticket in hopes of benefitting from increased voter turnout for the presidential election.
General manager since 1996, Fay said he’s seen seven or eight bonds go up for vote. The average voter approval rate is 74 percent, he said.
But Essex resident Paula DeMichele, who cast her ballot early, said she voted all three measures down because it was unclear that the bonds were rate-neutral.
“I saw no figures for the changes in water rate,” DeMichele said. “I don’t know why people would vote for this when there has been no information said publicly about whether or not rates will change.”
Fay said legal restrictions against voter persuasion prevent the district from expressly stating that information on the ballot. As such, Fay started promoting the bond on the CWD website and at public forums early this summer.
Still, he acknowledges it can be tricky to get the word out efficiently.
“If you do it too early, everyone won’t remember all the details,” Fay said. “We try to do it in a phased manner, but some of what we’re doing is in the last couple of weeks here.”
If the measures don’t pass, Fay said the district would likely ask voters to approve the bond trio on individual ballots. But he doesn’t see the total figures changing much, if at all.
“There isn’t a lot of cutting we can do on these projects,” Fay said. “When they’re required, you can’t reduce the scale a whole lot and still have it be effective.”
A public information meeting on the bonds will be held in Essex Jct.’s Lincoln Hall this Thursday at 7 p.m.