Tivoli mulls outsourcing aging water-sewer system

After a winter punctuated by frequent water main breaks in the village’s aging water system, Tivoli officials agree: it’s time for an upgrade.

Corroded pipes and water main breaks and an estimated $300,000 renovation cost for the water tower alone have caused Mayor Bryan Cranna to look for ways to modernize the 1938-built system–without using taxpayer money if possible.

In early March, as budget season began, Cranna had an exploratory meeting with the county’s Water and Wastewater Authority, reporting to the board that if the WWA took over the system, the authority would pay for the water tower replacement. That, along with renovating the system itself, would be a huge capital expense.

“We continue to make repairs on the system, but it continues to be a major expense to the taxpayers,” he said. “At some point, we have to determine what we want to do, and that’s why we’re looking at a possible transfer to the water authority.”

At the May 21 village board meeting, the board authorized a grant application to study one option: a transfer of ownership of the village’s water and sewer systems to the WWA.

But not all the trustees agree that outsourcing the water system, if it comes to that, is a good idea. Both Deputy Mayor Joel Griffith and Trustee Sue Ezrati urged caution and suggested interviewing private companies who could act as system operators, as well as considering ways to keep village control of the system.

Trustee Jean Ann Schneider agreed with this cautious approach, adding, “Once you give something away, you’ll never get it back.”

Cranna explained that the deadline for the grant application was June 2 and said, “This is just a study. We don’t have to agree to anything if we don’t want to.”

The board applied for the grant on June 2, but as part of their deliberations, they invited Bridget Barclay, head of the WWA, to give a presentation on June 11.

She explained that the WWA is a nonprofit organization established by the county legislature that combines aspects of a public entity, subject to open meetings law and municipal procurement requirements, and a private entity run by a legislature-appointed 5-member board of directors.

The WWA has 4,300 customer connections, including the Culinary Institute, the City of Poughkeepsie, Staatsburg and all of Hyde Park, and a $5 million yearly budget with 21 staff members, including 10 licensed water and sewer operators, she said.

If Tivoli decides to ask the county to run their system, the WWA will evaluate the system, put together a plan, and presents it to the public. A petition signed by 5 percent of the public will trigger a referendum on the question, according to Barclay.

“One of the biggest issues that concerns people is the rates,” Barclay explained. “We do not run systems with the major focus of keeping the rates flat.”

According to county records, in Hyde Park, for example, the Observer found that the monthly metered usage for 2014 is either $4.93 or $5.78 per 1,000 gallons, depending on which of the three districts a customer is in. There is also a monthly service charge, which at minimum is $11.50 for the smallest connection. In addition, county records show the WWA raised the metered usage price only 7 cents from 2013.

“So it’s more like dealing with Central Hudson than anything else,” Ezrati said. Barclay agreed, explaining that the board sets the rates and through various means, such as bonding and occasional Department of Agriculture grants, the WWA finances capital projects to maintain and improve the systems they cover.

Griffith asked whether the village could regain control of its systems if the WWA takes it over and the village isn’t happy. Barclay said it’s never happened before, but she said it could be done if the village is willing to buy it back.

For now, the village board will wait to see if it receives the grant to study the possible transfer.

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