Board to adopt budget, up utility rates

Upgrades are coming to the Pleasant Valley Water Treatment Plant in West Brattleboro.

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BRATTLEBORO — Town Meeting members will consider if $12.5 million in financing should be sought for a major replacement project at the Pleasant Valley Water Treatment Plant, which local officials say is necessary for health and safety reasons as well as functionality.

“We hope that after the presentation, the Q and A session this evening and the discussion we have on Saturday that you will agree with us that the project is essential,” Town Manager Peter Elwell said at an informational meeting held remotely Wednesday, referring to annual Representative Town Meeting happening Saturday. “These facilities are indeed essential to our community.”

The proposed project on Pleasant Valley Road in West Brattleboro includes a larger water treatment building to accommodate a fourth filter and make more space; a new three-bay garage that will allow indoor space for operators to perform maintenance; new electrical service from the pole and an emergency generator; removing existing settling lagoons and replacing them with an equalization basin; new stormwater management; various improvements to the raw water pump station; demolition of a building no longer in use; repaving the entire driveway; a new storage room; a larger room for staff; and a variety of new equipment including a heating system that will not rely on fossil fuels.

Ballots were sent out to Town Meeting members last week and need to be returned to the town clerk via a mailbox in the Municipal Center parking lot by 5 p.m. Friday, March 26. Approval is required before the town can seek bids for construction.

Steve Barrett, director of public works, said the Pleasant Valley Reservoir has provided drinking water to the town since 1920 and the water treatment plant was constructed in 1989. Previously, the only treatment in place involved disinfection via chlorination.

Surface water treatment was added in 1989 and the facilities had an estimated 20-year lifespan, Barrett said. Evaluations for improvements began in 2002 but upgrades at the wastewater treatment plant were prioritized.

“The water treatment facility operators are to be commended for extending the life expectancy of the plant well beyond 30 years,” Barrett said.

Chrissy Haskins, project manager and lead design engineer, said the proposed improvements at the water treatment plant are aimed at ensuring “adequate drinking water” for all customers.

Dufresne Group, where she works, began a preliminary engineering report in 2017. The report was completed last year and recommended continuing with the existing system but rebuilding the facility right next to the existing one.

Originally, the plant was designed to handle 3 million gallons of water per day. Haskins said due to regulatory changes in 2011, its capacity was reduced to 2 million gallons.

“So improvements are required to restore the original design capacity in compliance with state and federal regulations,” she said, later explaining that a fourth filter unit in the plant will increase capacity back to 3 million gallons per day.

Haskins said the building doesn’t meet current codes for energy efficiency and insulation, and there are concerns about the safety for operators related to limited access for maintenance and proper ventilation. She shared photos to demonstrate leaking, limited spacing and inadequate ventilation.

“There’s also significant health and safety concerns caused by the failing building structure,” she said. “The building wasn’t properly designed to hold snow loads and the piping loads that hang from the ceilings. The operators have been shoveling the roof continuously through the winter for 30 plus years, which is likely a main reason the building has lasted as long as it has.”

Some components have been rebuilt or replaced over the years but the project is intended to update infrastructure to meet modern standards, Haskins said. She noted the Vermont Water Drinking Water and Groundwater Division was involved in the process and Efficiency Vermont also informed the effort.

Financing is anticipated to come via the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Haskins said the program is funded by the state and federal governments, and offers low-interest loans for municipal water systems and potential forgiveness or subsidies.

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With the project listed as a top priority for the state, Elwell said Brattleboro is well situated for funding assistance and it already was offered loan terms with 0 percent interest. Announcements about subsidies from the DWSRF are expected in June.

When discussed at Select Board meetings earlier in the year, the annual payment for debt service for the project was estimated to be $417,082. Now, it’s anticipated to fall somewhere between $312,500 and $416,666.

In June, the board approved an ordinance update for water rates to cover the project. Quarterly rates for town water customers from 2021 to 2024 are set to rise by $2.80 for a single adult household, $3.40 for a two-adult household, and $5.04 for households with two adults and three children.

Rick Morton of District 1 wondered if population growth or commercial demand drives the need for increased capacity and whether more staff would be required. Current staffing will be sufficient and the increased capacity was based on meeting the regulatory standards rather than increased consumption, Elwell said, noting that engineers looked at population size when designing the project.

Morton also asked about security of the plant after news of a data breach at a water plant in Florida. Barrett said an electrical engineer assured the town that its system is not the same that had issues, and recommendations are being made to improve security.

Answering Tom Green of District 3 about life expectancy of the new plant, Haskins said the building and concrete structures are designed to last about 40 years. Mechanical equipment is estimated to hold up for about 20 years.

“Assuming we approve this to go through, which I imagine we will, I wonder if you can talk about how you’re going to choose the people who actually build this?” Ruth Garbus District 2 said, citing the complexity of the project.

A competitive bid process will include “extremely detailed specifications” and contractors will be required to show a successful track record, Elwell said.

Ruben Garza of District 3 asked if any argument could be made against the project. Given the age of the facility and the favorable financial terms, Elwell couldn’t name one.

“It really is time to replace the plant before it fails on you,” Haskins said.

When Tom Franks of District 2 asked about how the plant will continue operating during the rebuild, Barrett acknowledged there will be risks during the transition. But Barrett noted that water storage tanks elsewhere in the community can be relied on in case of an emergency.

Rikki Risatti of District 2 said the town has denied a request to fund lab-certified testing on drinking water for low-income residents.

“We have mostly declined to do that because in fact that is outside of the scope of the services that we generally provide,” Elwell said. “There actually have been a few occasions where we have done testing in Rikki’s building particularly based on a history of concerns that were raised there.”

He suggested the topic could be explored more in the future.