Judgment call’ may help Berlin municipal water plan
BERLIN — Just when it looked like Berlin’s ability to leverage favorable financing for a $5.5 million municipal water system had all but evaporated, the town was the beneficiary of a “judgment call” made by a federal employee who essentially concluded that no information was good information.
Rhonda Shippee, community programs director for USDA Rural Development in Vermont and New Hampshire, may have kept the town’s hopes of constructing a water system afloat based on what she conceded Monday was an “unusual” decision involving a newly completed income survey.
The results of that survey were relayed to USDA Rural Development last week by a consultant who spent nearly two months attempting to collect necessary data from the 59 households that could potentially be served by the proposed water system.
Due to the small sample size, an 87 percent response rate — roughly 51 of the 59 households — was believed to be necessary to qualify for USDA financing.
And here’s where Shippee may have saved the day, because while Shaun Fielder, executive director of the Vermont Rural Water Association, collected 52 of the surveys — an 88 percent response rate — 14 of them were from participants who simply refused to fill out the form.
Shippee’s flexible interpretation of whether to allow those blank surveys to be counted toward meeting the threshold established by USDA boiled down to her definition of the word “response” and the absence of one in federal guidelines.
“It was a ‘response’ with no income information, but it was a ‘response,’ as opposed to just ‘nothing was received,’” she said Monday, stressing her decision doesn’t mean Berlin will qualify for favorable financing town officials say they need in order to keep the water system affordable.
“They (Berlin) potentially qualify for funding,” she said, noting the town satisfied three key criteria, one of which can be directly traced to the income survey.
According to Shippee, Berlin’s population is less than 10,000, water projects are eligible for USDA financing and, based on the income survey conducted by Fielder, the median household income in the service area for the proposed water system is well below the $57,328 eligibility ceiling.
Shippee acknowledged that might be due to a sample size that wasn’t as statistically significant as she would have hoped.
Fielder was able to collect income-related information from 38, or roughly 65 percent, of the 59 households.
According to the survey results, household incomes ranged from $2,000 to $175,000 with a median income of $42,500.
Shippee said it was a first-of-its-kind turn of events involving a type of project — a new water system — that USDA Rural Development isn’t often asked to help finance.
“I’ll be honest, we’ve never had a case where people respond (to income surveys) and say: ‘I choose not to provide my income,’” she said.
Some residents’ stubborn refusal to fill out a simple survey that they were assured committed them to nothing and would be kept confidential threatened to derail efforts to secure favorable financing for the project earlier this month.
Fielder warned the Select Board of that possibility during an April 1 briefing. At the time Fielder had only persuaded 31, or 53 percent, of the 59 targeted households to provide him with income-related information, while seven households — 12 percent of the total — had flatly refused.
During the course of the ensuing week, Fielder picked up seven more responses, doubled the number of refusals and, after consulting with Shippee’s office, found reason for renewed optimism. He said he was told forms returned by those unwilling to provide any income-related information could be counted toward meeting a pre-established target designed to ensure the statistical validity of the income survey.
Shippee said she’ll need to see the individual forms, but believed she had the flexibility to count ones that were returned, but not completed.
“It was an unusual situation,” she said, defending a decision that some might view as relaxing a standard in order to accommodate a community’s application for federal financing.
“I prefer to err on the side of the customer,” she said.
The proposed water system would serve the Berlin Four Corners area, as well an area adjacent to the Barre-Montpelier Road. The water system, which was narrowly approved by voters in February, contemplates the installation of 31,500 linear feet of water line, and construction of a 400,000-gallon water storage tank and pump station that would be located near the three town-owned wells on Scott Hill Road.
In addition to resolving longstanding problems with contaminated drinking water supplies in the area, town officials believe that providing a reliable and affordable source of drinking water would assist existing businesses and unleash the potential for future economic development.
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