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Water Authority Needs Cash Or Else

The Bristol County Water Authority will run out of cash for operating expenses by the end of next year without more revenue, town councilors are told Wednesday. They also hear that the water authority is being sued.

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on a “situational analysis” that shows an aging infrastructure, a single water source, declining demand for water, and outdated management systems.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.”

Gary Morse December 20, 2012 at 11:57 AM
Councilor DePasquale was correct in his statement “I guess we don’t have the water system we thought we had,”. For the benefit of those who didn't attend last nights meeting, one of BCWA's slides in their presentation showed a glass of pre-processed water from the Mass reservoirs. It looked like a weak cup of coffee. For years we were told everything was fine at BCWA and spending money to get water from the Mass supplies was in our best interests. In 2001, BCWA put approximately $1.7 million into improvements in their settling tanks to allow that coffee like water to stand and let the crud settle to the bottom. That money is now wasted since we have shut down the processing plant. We were paying thousands to the town of Warren to regularly truck that crud away. In the BCWA forum held on Jan 25, 2011, BCWA's attorney, Sandra Mack, tried to convince the audience that she prefers the taste of that heavily treated water in a vain "my client is innocent" attempt to justify the nonsense that was our prior water authority. We now know the truth that the prior BCWA was a mess. We have to change direction. The years of mismanagement will cost a lot, probably more than BCWA is asking for in the current rate increase. But this is the cost of blind neglect and mismanagement.
Gary Morse December 20, 2012 at 12:22 PM
One last point - When the 2011 BCWA Performance Audit RFP was written for the Tri Town Council (by none other than Sandra Mack, BCWA's attorney) it contained the following statement: “Once those improvements are completed, BCWA anticipates providing most of its water to its customers primarily by four surface water reservoirs located in the County and the adjacent areas of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." The town councils at that time believed it was in our best interests to let BCWA's attorney make the rules on how an audit would be conducted.
Irish Temper December 20, 2012 at 04:32 PM
Gary, perhaps I'm ignorant of all the facts involved in this whole fiasco, but isn't this situation bad enough in terms of gross mismanagement and negligence on the part of the BCWA that it warrants a criminal inquiry by the State Police or other outside entity?
Gary Morse December 20, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Irish, For 2 1/2 years, there was an effort to get a full audit of spending. The facts were provided to our public officials. Nothing was done, and in fact, the requirements for a full financial audit were written out of the 2011 Performance Audit RFP by BCWA's attorney, and then OK'd by the Tri-Town Council. Following the financially toothless audit, some of our public officials proudly proclaimed "I'm happy to hear that no corruption was found". The general public was largely indifferent, and nothing will happen when only a handful of local residents are the extent of the public outrage. The issue is now about the future. BCWA has improved their management, which is not to say I don't think there is additional room for improvement. There is a lot more that can be done. What we have now is a crumbling infrastructure where delay of repair will cost more in the end, and become a health hazard. This is going to cost a lot, but cost more to delay.
Irish Temper December 20, 2012 at 06:37 PM
Gary, Thanks for the explanation. To your point about a largely indifferent public - it explains why certain individuals (i.e. June Speakman, et. al) were not held accountable in the recent election. Would be nice to see a retrospective Op Ed piece (perhaps in the Barrington Times) regarding what the "majority' actually got for its vote of confidence.
marina peterson December 20, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Where to begin??? It appears that, at the advice of their attorney, the BCWA has decided not to settle their obligation with the Anawan Club. Kerching!!! For the BCWA to NOT tape this important meeting so that ALL of the ratepayers could view it online is unfathomable! Our taping committee was assured that the taping would go on after they advised us that they wanted to look elsewhere for this service. At this time of year, when everyone is very busy with family and the holidays, I believe that they were counting on a poor attendance last night. There were about 6 people there that were non-related to the meeting. At our forum two years ago we talked about the cow manure getting into the water (the famous slide of the cow on the hill) and explained how it would be more economical to purchase water from other sources and have the plant be a distribution point. This was exactly the plan stated by the executive director last night, including the reference to the cow manure! She also said that there will be no layoffs and that people will be cross-trained. The new union contract that she negotiated prohibits layoffs and also stipulates that if an employee is re-assigned to a lesser paying job, he/she gets her same rate of pay. "Modifying" the Bristol County Water Act should be interesting. How do you take funds that were voted on by the people for one purpose, and redirect them to something else? Rate hike hearing is tonight, 12/20 at Mt. Hope HS 6:00PM.
marina peterson December 20, 2012 at 09:15 PM
I found it notable that Ms. Marchand completely dismissed the findings of the B&E report and stated that the firm did not have the experience required to complete the task correctly. They had to get a consultant to address the situation "correctly". Did not the three towns spend over $30,000 for this report? I find it hard to believe that all three towns would select a firm that was incapable of performing. I don't know how it is accomplished, but I feel that coming under the PUC would be an improvement. If last night was any indication... the spending will be endless .. and we apparently are not downsizing the plant/employees even though no water is being processed. It has become a very highly paid distribution center.
Gary Morse December 22, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Breaking BCWA news! After a search for a replacement of their long time attorney, Sandra Mack, and after finding highly qualified candidates who wanted the job, a majority of the Board voted to give her another chance. If BCWA was trying to gain support for a rate increase, and build bridges back to the community, they just lost it with this vote. The two board members who had the sensibility to vote against retaining Ms Mack are: Mr. Kevin Fitta Barrington Representative Term Ending: 2/28/13 Mr. Raymond F. Palmieri, Sr. Warren Representative Term Ending: 2/28/14 Those who seem to lack proper insight into Ms. Mack's past with BCWA, or just chose to ignore good sense as articulated in a speech by Director Fitta as to why Ms Mack should not be retained, are: Mr. Allan C. Klepper Barrington Representative Term Ending: 2/28/14 Mr. Robert Allio Barrington Representative Term Ending: 2/28/I5 Mr. Joseph S. DeMello Bristol Representative Term Ending: 2/28/13 Mr. Paul L. Bishop Bristol Representative Term Ending: 2/28/14 Mr. William F. Gosselin Warren Representative Term Ending: 2/28/13 BCWA appears to be heading back to their old ways, just with some new faces, and higher rates.
marina peterson December 22, 2012 at 01:05 AM
Regarding the BCWA meeting last night where a vote was taken to award the legal contract once again to Sandra Mack... I do believe there may be an open meetings law issue here. The Agenda does NOT indicate a vote. It states RFP – Legal Services - the same way it has appeared on the agenda for months. I understand that at the rate hearing a question was posed by a rate payer asking the status of the Legal RFP. The response from Ms. Marchand was "Nothing has been decided yet." She failed to indicate to the ratepayer that it was going to be voted on after the hearing was over (literally minutes later). This is BCWA double-speak. Just like Delise saying he "could turn it on tomorrow" when he was asked two years ago if the E. Providence interconnect worked. Yes, he could turn it on... but nothing would happen. A complaint needs to be filed with the Attorney General's office regarding the lack of notification of this vote. I am very surprised to see that Joe Demelo and Robert Allio voted for Ms. Mack. They both are fully aware of past issues that may prove to be a problem when trying to get funding. I believe a full audit of the Bristol County Water Authority Act expenditures will be required and very well should be required, before any changes are made to the existing legislation tying the funds to the Shad Line. This is not a "slam dunk" ladies and gentlemen. A far cry from it!
Gary Morse December 22, 2012 at 11:11 AM
The BCWA meeting did appear illegal Marina. They've posted the same "RFP - Legal" meeting notice every month, and then did a vote late at night to reinstate Ms. Mack on that same non descriptive notice in an attempt to keep the public out of the discussion. Sandra Mack has to be reviewing these notices. So was Sandra Mack's legal advice to hold an illegal meeting so she could slip in without public debate??? BCWA was controversial for the past two decades because of tactics like this. The Board should be ashamed of itself for continuing to promote such tactics, while at the same time, proclaiming a need to rebuild trust within the community. As far as I'm concerned, the meeting to reinstate Sandra Mack as their legal counsel sent a clear message that BCWA cannot be trusted with a 5 year 30+% rate increase. The foundation for that increase was trust in the community to act on rate payers best interests. They've just sent a message - rate payers be damned!
Lorraine F December 23, 2012 at 12:43 PM
What made this BCWA meeting illegal? Just curious. And how do I find out about these meetings?
marina peterson December 24, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Lorraine, at the present time you need to check the Secretary of State's site on a regular basis to find out about the meetings. They usually only post them with the bare minimum notice of 48 hours so you have to be vigilant. Publicity has been very scarce. I usually send out notices to folks that are on my "interested in BCWA list". What made this meeting illegal is that to comply with open meetings regulations they are supposed to let readers know if they will be taking a vote on an issue. This way the ratepayers can ask questions beforehand, etc. They did not do this. There was no indication in the agenda that a vote was going to be taken. The re-appointment of Ms. Mack is/was a very contentious matter with most people who have been following BCWA for the last few years realizing that, if nothing else, it will be next to impossible to get the forensic audit of the Bristol County Water Authority Act that is needed to "clear the air" with her in that position. She blocked it with the B&E report. Hope this helps. The most important issue right now is to make sure that the 6.9M that was allocated to the Shad line does not get re-allocated WITHOUT a complete audit first. This is imperative!
Lorraine F December 24, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Is BCWA going to be sued for this?? Or at least a complaint to the town councils? I'm unfamiliar with what this is all about, but it now seems to be both illegal and just plain wrong in view of their request for a huge rate increase. Will they ever learn that their public image is horrific?
Gary Morse December 26, 2012 at 11:48 AM
Back to BCWA's rate increase. Here are some facts: The BCWA 2011 Performance Audit outlined in detail their high labor costs: http://bristol-warren.patch.com/articles/water-authority-performance-audit-shows-excessive-labor-costs-2 The new labor contract locked in those costs with a "no layoff" clause where it appears not a single production employee will be impacted by the shutdown of the water treatment plant. The benefit packages are still out of line with benefits provided in the private sector, and even with most government sector jobs. I admire the union for its work on behalf of its members. It's management and the board I call into question who have failed to examine parity with water authorities like East Providence. They have never done that simple task. Then there is the statutory mandate of the 1993 Bristol County Water Supply Act. That mandate required ongoing legal advice by their attorney who was charging BCWA $495 per hour. At this point, it appears not only is BCWA relying on $6.9 million in state taxpayer money they may not be entitled to, it also appears BCWA might actually owe money back to the state ($1.7 million) for transfers in 2001 for work on the water treatment plant before the Shad Pipeline was installed. This is the mess we have, in part, because BCWA is not under the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and instead run by unqualified volunteers. BCWA should finally be placed under the PUC for the sake of its rate payers.
Local Mom December 26, 2012 at 05:20 PM
This issue is a prime example of why people need to experience living in other parts of the country, instead of assuming things may not be much different elsewhere. We moved here from Denver a few years ago. I have been shocked at the cost of water here where water (potable or not) is far more abundant. Our average quarterly bill in Denver was $45, vs my averge bill of $140/quarter here. In Denver, water is relatively scarce but resources are much better managed - one public entity manages the water supply for 1.3MM people (Denver and immediate suburbs) and costs are much more reasonable. For BCWA to not be able to reasonably manage abundant local resources for a mere 15,000 Bristol County customers smacks of a long standing power and/or money grab somewhere. Am not a huge fan of government intervention, but if there was ever a case for PUC oversight, this is it.

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