The Bristol County Water Authority is in bad financial shape.
Pamela Marchand, executive director of the water authority, delivered that message to the town councils of Barrington, Warren and Bristol Wednesday evening, Dec. 19, in Barrington Town Hall.
The Tri-Town Meeting was set up by the water authority to brief the 15 councilors on its new strategic and financial plans and its need for a double-digit rate hike for next year. That rate hike will be explained at a public hearing for ratepayers tonight at 6 at Mt. Hope High School.
“We’re not in a good financial situation right now,” Marchand said. “We will run out of cash by the end of next year” without a significant boost in revenue.
Marchand explained after the meeting that she was referring to cash used to pay operating and capital expenses. The water authority still has millions of dollars set aside in reserves to pay off bonds. But that cash cannot be used for day-to-day expenses, she said.
The town councilors also learned Wednesday that the financial situation might be even a bit worse than Marchand explained. Two representatives from the Anawan Club in Rehoboth, Mass., informed the councilors that the club filed a lawsuit against the water authority in Superior Court in Taunton, Mass., on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
The club, which has had an agreement with the water authority for water in the Shad reservoir for decades, is suing the authority for approximately $300,000. The club said it is owed that amount of cash for maintenance and repairs to the dam that feeds the Shad pipeline.
The costs have accumulated over 18 years, and through mounds of correspondence with water authority officials, according to the club representatives. Anawan filed the lawsuit after being unable to reach a settlement agreement with the water authority over the costs.
Marchand spent most of the meeting outlining the water authority’s new strategic plan, which was crafted based on a “situational analysis” that shows an aging infrastructure, a single water source, declining demand for water, and outdated management systems.
The board has set goals, therefore, to maintain a secure source of high-quality water, address infrastructure that is 100 years old in some cases, improve management systems, ensure financial stability, and improve customer relations.
“Those goals are all interrelated,” Marchand said. “They must be met together.”
The water authority plans first to secure a backup water supply by building a pipeline through East Providence to Pawtucket, which can supply all of Bristol County’s water if necessary.
But that will take some political muscle to “modify” the Bristol County Water Act, she said, which requires the authority to maintain its supplies and facilities to Massachusetts.
The authority then wants to start making upgrades to pump stations, water tanks, the meter system and 60 miles of water mains, including a main that runs under Maple Avenue in Barrington, over the next 20 years.
“We’re running out of time to do that before we see water quality issues,” Marchand said, referring specifically to cast-iron mains that must be cleaned and lined of deposits.
All of the above requires a boost in revenue, which has been dropping because rate payers have been conserving water. The average rate payer in Bristol County uses 41 gallons of water a day, far less than the state’s goal of 65 gallons a day, she said.
The authority already has reduced costs, Marchand said, by cutting debt service, negotiating a favorable contract with the union and reducing retirement expenses. All that remains is to raise rates – by 12 percent next year and 4 percent a year on top of that for four more years.
“I guess we don’t have the water system we thought we had,” said Warren Town Councilor Joe DePasquale. “Now we need a big increase.”