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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 6, 2009
Some in Berne balk as sewer project drags on
By Zach Simeone
BERNE After a premature approval of a cost increase in the sewer-district project, a petition has been drawn up by Town Attorney William Conboy, asking for support of the increase from sewer-district residents. It would amount to $4 more annually for a typical property.
But this is one of two petitions to surface in the past month relating to the proposed million-dollar cost increase in the long-awaited project. The other petition is by citizens opposed to the cost increase; some are opposed to the project itself.
In June, Supervisor Kevin Crosier announced that the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency would be giving the town its third chunk of grant money $600,000 worth adding up to $1.6 million in total grants from the USDA. Back in 2004, Berne got its first $500,000, and another half-million dollars came this past March. The town has also received $750,000 from the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation, $25,000 from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and $10,000 from the New York State Hudson River Valley Greenway.
The planned sewer system for the hamlet of Berne would be the first municipal system in town. It was required by the state because sewage from private septic systems was seeping into the Foxenkill.
The town board first approved the increase at its June 10 meeting, but such an increase cannot be approved without consent from the owners of 51 percent of the assessed value of property in the proposed district. So, at its July 8 meeting, the town board authorized the cost increase, assuming the town can acquire the required signatures on the petition drawn up by Conboy.
The petition reads, “As a result of proposed changes in debt service payments, and a commitment from the USDA-Rural Development for an additional $500,000 in grant funding to assist in offsetting the proposed increased construction costs, the maximum proposed to be expended for construction is proposed to be increased from the sum of $2,500,000 to the sum of $3,601,813, and the annual costs of the district to a typical property within the district for the first year, which was estimated to be $620, is proposed to be increased to $624.”
The sewer project, in the works since the late 1990s, is designed to help those with substandard septic systems and contaminated wells, while complying with an order on consent from the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which found pollution in the Foxenkill. The town passed its sewer use ordinance in November of 2008.
“The residents approved the $2.5 million for the last increase in the sewer district, which was also done by petition,” Supervisor Crosier said this week. “By law, when the cost of the project went up to $2.5 million, we then had to go back and ask the residents for the approval on the increase again. We are now doing the same thing we did before: We met with the residents, explained the increase, and we’ll ask the landowners to sign the petition.”
In addition to petitioning, the increase can also be approved by permissive referendum, but this, Councilman Peter Vance said, is the weaker option.
“This basically means we have to pay someone to haul out the voting machine and count the votes, which, by the way, would be an expense to the sewer district,” Vance said.
Another petition, drawn up and presented to the town board last month by district resident Diane Dibble, contained signatures from some district residents who oppose not only the cost increase, but the sewer project in general.
Highway worker Joseph Welsh, Dibble’s neighbor, helped by collecting signatures from residents that share their view. The petition had signatures from 17 homes within the proposed district, according to Clerk Patricia Favreau. Vance said there are close to 90 homes in the district.
“I live on [Route] 156 below 443, and everyone has approved septic tanks down there,” Welsh told The Enterprise this week. “There are probably eight or nine residents down there with working septic tanks; people with approved septics do not need new sewer districts, and the town is basically forcing us to have this happen. Just because some people can’t flush their toilet, it isn’t our problem.”
Welsh said that his septic system was tested when he bought his house four years ago, and “everything’s fine,” he said.
“My personal opinion is, I think we were add-ons to get additional grant money,” Welsh said. “I’m sure there are people who do need some septic improvement, but there’re plenty of people that have septic tanks that are working just fine.”
While Dibble shares Welsh’s sentiment, she originally drew up the petition because she does not think the town can afford the project.
“What started the petition was that we received a letter saying that they were $620,000 short because, since they started the project, the cost of construction had gone up and so forth,” Dibble said. “I still don’t feel, even with the increased money from a grant, that we’ll be able to afford it. That grant money didn’t change the fact that there’s only going to be one person, two hours a day, maintaining the system,” she said.
Regarding the efficiency of one worker, performing two hours of work a day on the system, Vance said, “We hope that we don’t have to do anything more than that. These systems are built to basically run on their own. Ideally, you have someone to check up on it and do a couple tests and stuff like that. We’re taking the advice of Lamont Engineering, who engineers sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants. All of our estimates and calculations have been done by the engineers,” he said.
Further, of Dibble, he added, “She’s entitled to her opinion, but we have been reviewed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Albany County Department of Health. I don’t know how it could be done less expensively I really don’t,” he said. “I understand that there are people that are unhappy with this, but it’s a community. They’re part of the community. I’m sorry that so many people are upset and don’t feel the project is in the best interest of the community. The original estimate was done five years ago, and the cost of construction went up. But it’s not costing them any more money.”