Water, Sewer Depts. 2021 budget talks delayed

Water main project still planned
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 6:00pm

Although the current shutdown of government activities on Block Island has interrupted several projects in various stages of development, the Water Commission and Supt. John Breunig are taking steps to ensure that one of the most important projects that was initiated earlier this year stays on track.

That project is the replacement of 3,700 feet of 10-inch asbestos concrete pipe in the High Street/Payne Road water main, which is the main feed into the downtown area. The $2.3 million project was always slated to begin in the fall, according to Breunig, but when local government was shut down last month, and the town and the state restricted gatherings to fewer than five people, a special Financial Town Meeting to vote on funding was cancelled.

The other discussion that was interrupted was the formation of the department budgets for both the Water and Sewer Companies. Although the fiscal year for all town departments ends on June 30 each year, the Water and Sewer Companies hold separate budget discussions and have their own Financial Town Meetings later than all other town departments. While budget discussions were to begin in late April, they’ll now begin on May 18 for both departments. The Water and Sewer Commissions met in an online forum on Monday, April 13.

As for the High Street/Payne Road project, part of its funding was expected to come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, which was expected to cover 45 percent of the project, or about $1 million. (The Town Council also approved a measure that would have 25 percent of the cost of the project shared among all property tax payers, not just those within the water district, a decision that was based on the idea that the entire town and business community benefits from the use of the water main.)

Town Engineer Jim Geremia, attending the Monday, April 13 meeting through an online meeting platform, said that he is preparing a document to send to the USDA that “memorializes all the approval processes that we went through, and that they have approved the contract documents and plans and specifications.”

Given that the delay of the project is COVID-19 related, Geremia said that it was important to let the USDA know “that we are still moving forward with this project.” He said that once the documents for the USDA are signed “we’re locked in. We’re agreeing to do this project.” The commission approved sending the letter to the USDA.

One upside to the delay is that when the town does finally take out a loan to complete the project, interest rates may be historically low.

“They were historically low a month ago,” said Town Finance Director Amy Land, who was also on the call. “There is a window where they should continue to go down.”

Breunig brought up the fact that state and town restrictions now disallow public gatherings of more than five people until May 8, which knocked out the scheduled budget hearings on April 27 and May 4 for the water and sewer departments. Breunig suggested moving the first hearing to May 18, but it might also be a virtual meeting.

Sewer Commission Chair Pete McNerny said “we can have budget sessions. The bottom line is we can have those things, we just have to figure out how to do it. We can do it via Zoom. I think we can have those, in my opinion.”

Commission attorney Dave Petrarca said, “I have reviewed this in other towns and this is an essential government function. You’re allowed to hold virtual meetings.” He said that public opinion could be heard during those virtual meetings, but that would have to be figured out.

Land, however, suggested that waiting as long as possible on budget discussions might allow the commissions to have a better picture of what the coming year may look like in terms of revenue. “Given that we would need to delay the public hearings and the annual [town] meeting [scheduled for May 4], I would also recommend you slide back any of the budget work sessions to give us more time to have a budget that actually reflects the reality.” Putting together a budget too soon “would look like business as usual,” and so she asked to “give us more time to prepare a responsible budget.” Land said the commissions could wait until June and still pass a budget before the end of the fiscal year. If a budget is not passed before the end of the fiscal year, the current fiscal budget would go into effect.

The Water Company budget for this year is $851,721. The Sewer Company’s budget is $1,505,513.

Flushing wipes: Don’t do it

Water Commission Chair Brad Marthens asked Sewer Company Supt. Dylan Chace about whether people were still flushing disposable disinfectant wipes down into the sewer system.

“Has it gotten any worse or has it stayed the same,” Marthens asked.

“I’ve had three clogs in the past two weeks,” said Chase. “We had to get up in the middle of the night. We’re checking the Ocean Avenue pump stations more regularly now. We have had an increase.”