Berlin is asked to pay for water system work
BERLIN — Town officials are being asked to make a contractual commitment for the final design of a municipal water system that may never be built.
A week after a sliver of the town’s 1,917 registered voters narrowly approved a bond issue to build a water system to serve the Berlin Four Corners area, the engineer who has been working on the project since 2007 said he needs more than a nod and a handshake to take it to the next level.
Mark Youngstrom of Otter Creek Engineering told the town’s water supply committee Wednesday that he is eager for the Select Board to approve an amendment to an earlier contract so he can recoup more than $42,000 for work he has already performed “in good faith” and begin the final design of the system.
According to Youngstrom, the agreement he provided the town months ago includes roughly $20,000 for helping with preparations for last week’s bond vote and lining up financing, as well as $52,500 for fieldwork and $150,000 for the final design.
However, committee member Gary Beem said he believed Youngstrom’s request was premature, and not just because the 30-day window for petitioning to revote the bond issue won’t close until March 15. The bond was approved 122-108.
Of greater concern to Beem is that a household income survey, which will help determine whether the $5.5 million project is financially viable, is still weeks away from being completed.
“I don’t think we have a project yet, and you’re putting the Select Board and the town … out there,” he told Youngstrom, suggesting the risk was unwarranted.
According to Beem, the income survey, which was recently mailed to residents who live in the area that would be served by the water system, will determine whether the project is eligible for favorable financing and dictate what the town will need to charge for water.
“I really think the income survey is the key to this project,” he said.
The data collection phase for the survey is scheduled to conclude March 4, and the committee was told the results should be in hand in about a month.
However, Youngstrom said his firm has carried the project to this point. At a minimum, he said, he needs to be paid for the work he has already performed, but would “like to get going on the design right now.”
Although Youngstrom acknowledged the importance of the income survey, he said it wasn’t the only thing that could trip up plans for a municipal water system.
“There are all kinds of things that can stop this project dead in the water,” he said. “It’s an act of faith to move ahead, and one act of faith is starting the design while you’re working on all these other things too.”
Ultimately the Select Board must decide how to handle Youngstrom’s request. The plan has been to roll all preconstruction costs — including the now-completed drilling, testing and acquisition of three wells on Scott Hill Road — into the cost of the project, to be paid for by future ratepayers.
However, if the water system is never built — and town officials have said it won’t be if available financing doesn’t allow them to deliver water to users at an affordable rate — taxpayers at large will be on the hook for any money that has or will be spent on planning and design.
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