Great Barrington — During its meeting on Monday, June 26, the Selectboard discussed proposed financial aid for Housatonic Water Works (HWW) customers. Instead of reaching a decision, however, the board pushed the discussion and a potential decision to its next scheduled meeting on Monday, July 10.
At the beginning of the meeting, Selectboard Chair Stephen Bannon read a statement addressing HWW’s proposed rate increase to customers. The proposed rate increase was announced on Friday, June 23, with the company announcing that, if approved by the state’s Department of Public Utilities, the across-the-board increase will result in a monthly minimum service charge of $98.38 and a $23.24 charge per thousand gallons for all water usage over the 2,500-gallon monthly allowance. The annual cost of water service for the average residential customer would increase from $746.40 to $1,641.48.
Bannon said that the timing of the announcement did not legally allow enough time for a discussion on the proposed rate increase to be included on the agenda for the June 26 meeting. “The [state’s] Open Meeting Law requires that a meeting’s agenda be posted at least 48 hours before the meeting, weekdays and holidays excluded, except in emergency situations,” Bannon said. “The Selectboard has not had a chance to discuss the proposed substantial increase. I can assure you the Selectboard will take this matter up at the July 10 meeting. As we have in the past, we will apply for intervenor status [in the case]. The Selectboard will support the ratepayers of Housatonic Water Works throughout this process.” Bannon added that he urged residents to submit public comments to the Department of Public Utilities through its website.
The board proceeded to discuss the potential aid to HWW customers, which had been proposed at a previous meeting by Town Manager Mark Pruhenski. According to Pruhenski’s written executive summary as prepared for the meeting, the town will receive $250,000 in relief funding from the state via an economic development bill that was approved in December.
The town is still waiting to receive the funding, but as it is waiting, Pruhenski has proposed that the town offer HWW customers in Great Barrington grants of up to $500 for the installation of water filtration systems. “This funding would be provided to a Housatonic property owner or tenant, with written permission from the property owner, as a reimbursement once the installation is completed by a licensed plumbing contractor and proof of installation and inspection (if applicable) have been submitted to the town, retroactive to January 1, 2018,” Pruhenski wrote. “This would allow us to provide funding to 500 property owners or tenants. The program would remain in place until the funds are exhausted. It’s unclear how many property owners are directly impacted and how many will install water filtration systems at this time. If after six months from program launch, funding remains available, the Selectboard should revisit this discussion and consider providing additional funding to approved applicants.”
Pruhenski said that the proposed program would provide aid to approximately 500 property owners or tenants who are HWW customers and that there are currently 850 connections to HWW’s water system in Housatonic.
Pruhenski said that if every HWW customer in town was given aid from the program, it would reduce the proposed $500 aid to $294 per household. “$500 doesn’t go that far towards [a filter] for a whole household,” Selectboard member Benjamin Elliott said. “But it does get people pretty close to a biological level filter for drinking and cooking water, which could be a form of relief.”
In response, Pruhenski said that the Board of Health is working on a recommendation for residents when it comes to purchasing a filtration system that addresses manganese and other contaminants.
Resident and HWW customer Anne O’Dwyer told the board that both she and her husband purchased a $500 water filtration system which was installed at their house two years ago. “But this past summer, we found it made so little difference,” O’Dwyer said. “We had lots of brown water, and our sense is that the money that we invested in this lower-cost filter was wasted.”
O’Dwyer said that she and her husband went on to install a much more expensive water filter for their house. “We are fortunate to have the funds to pay for this more expensive option, which in my understanding is a low of $2,500 and can even run as high as $5,000,” O’Dwyer said. “I feel that the Housatonic Water relief fund should not go to people like me who can afford the $2,500 to $3,000 expense, but should be allocated to those who don’t have the resources available to them to pay for such an expense at this time. Those of us with the $500 to get a cheaper filter will not find our water all that much better than those with no filter. I do think that the Selectboard getting out more information about what are the different costs [for filters] out there to residents and people’s experiences with them is important.”
Resident Debra Herman, who previously tried to sue HWW in small claims court but eventually dismissed it after substantial legal wrangling, said that, while she appreciated the interest of the town’s plan to give HWW customers aid, that HWW should take responsibility for the ongoing situation. “I feel very strongly that the responsibility for giving us proper water that we can safely drink and bathe in and use for all normal purposes lies with Housatonic Water Works,” Herman said. “The Board of Health, the Department of Environmental Protection, and all those who have oversight have let down the people of Housatonic by allowing this system to deteriorate. I think it’s time that Housatonic Water Works steps up and does something for the people of Housatonic. They’ve been providing us with water [that], by their admission, is unhealthy.”
“The elephant in the room is that Housatonic Water Works really should be stepping up,” Vice-Chair Lee Davis said. “It’s frustrating to try to do this as much as we can and still come up short.”
Resident Donna Jacobs said that the proposed $500 aid would not be enough to purchase a proper water filtration system for her house. “If I were to receive a stipend of $500 to install a whole house filtration system, I would not have the $2,500 to pay for the rest,” Jacobs said. “While it’s a lovely idea to be helpful to us in Housatonic, [the proposal] is not helpful. It’s putting the burden of providing healthy water on the shoulders of residents. To me, I don’t quite understand how we’re even thinking of putting that burden on residents. We’re already paying for water, and I think we need to be a little more creative and not place the burden on the customer who is already paying twice to have something to drink.”
“It’s a nice gesture, but with $500 I can’t afford a whole house water filtration system,” resident Michelle Loubert added. “It’s almost like taking a Tylenol when you’re in labor. It’s a nice token gesture, but it’s not going to take the edge off of that pain. [The company] is taking Housatonic hostage. We can’t afford that rate increase if it goes through, we can’t afford a whole water [filtration] system, and we can’t afford a well.”
Later on in the meeting, Selectboard Chair Bannon said, “Maybe the solution is, as well thought out [as this proposal is], is we ask people to apply for $500 to spend any way that they wish on water,” which would include the purchase of bottled water.
Bannon added that the town did ask HWW to help with the relief program. “We didn’t get a response,” he said. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get a response. I think it would be a good gesture to ask them to match [the funds].”
“Housatonic Water Works should be matching the $250,000,” Davis added. “We would have $500,000 for this.”
The selectboard also discussed the idea of creating a “bank” where customers who chose not to accept the relief funds could donate it back.
While there was no definitive decision from the Selectboard by the end of the discussion, member Garfield Reed said he fully supported the aid plan. “$500 is better than nothing,” Reed said. “It’s a start. I have been a proponent of getting something done because I don’t think we’re doing enough. I feel that Housatonic Water Works needs to get on the ball because they are responsible, not the Selectboard.”