*Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series focusing on the current state of the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District and the six-year capital plan recently put before the Board of Trustees.
SOUTHWEST HARBOR— Since its formation in 2016, there has been no shortage of broken pipes, lack of funds, piecemeal solutions and questions about how to get the Water and Sewer District operating in a proactive, versus reactive, manner.
It isn’t the fault of the district, though. That legacy was inherited from the town.
In May, District Manager Steve Kenney presented the district’s five–member board with a six-year capital plan. It addressed items for the wastewater treatment plant, the water treatment plant and the district’s office ranging from $200,000 to more than a half a million each year. Not included on the list is the cost of building a new wastewater treatment plant that is estimated to run between $15-$20 million.
One large–ticket item for 2020, estimated at a cost of $160,000, is replacement of the software and hardware for the filtration system at the water treatment plant on Long Pond Road. According to Kenney, the original system was installed in the plant in 1998, but the company that sold the technology to the town went out of business a few years ago.
“Nobody can work on it because nobody has the codes or directions to change things,” said Kenney. “If the system totally crashes, we’d have to do it all by hand.”
Making matters worse, Kenney explained, the system’s hard drive crashed four years ago and information on it was not recovered. He and employees of the district have been able to keep the filtration system running with a lot of makeshift solutions.
“It’s just a lot of babysitting and we’re spending a lot of money on overtime,” said Kenney, who has reported to town and district officials that $15,000-$20,000 is spent each year on labor, adjustments and repairs to the system. “We’re basically throwing money out the window every year. We’ve had years when we’ve spent more.”
While the town has helped with some of the district’s larger–ticket items over the last few years, Kenney said the new equipment needed at the water treatment plant will be funded with a loan to the district.
“We’re going to see what it looks like to borrow it,” he said.
Increasing the district’s debt may result in the need to increase the water users’ rates, but doing so requires approval from the Public Utilities Commission. It has been 10 years since the water rates were last increased and it was a sizable hike of 10 percent.
“It’s an expensive endeavor, probably $10,000, to present our case,” said Kenney about going before the PUC. “In general, we need to look at what our rates are. We’re just breaking even now… We’d rather (increase by) two percent or some smaller number every other year.”
There are 680 users of the town’s sewer system and 930 users of the public water system. Approval from residents of the town is required to increase the sewer rates. Voters approved raising those rates by 10 percent in 2018.
“We’re running two businesses under one corporation,” said Kenney about each arm of the district. “And, we’re running them differently.”
When the district was formed, it inherited the town’s water and sewer debt, according to Jim Geary, who was chairman of the district’s board at the time.
There was $875,000 in water bonds and $831,000 in wastewater bonds. Because the town’s water and sewer department was not collecting enough money to pay its operating costs, the district also took on an additional half a million dollars in operating loss. The town agreed to shoulder that debt if the district agreed to pay it off with yearly installments.
Over the last several months, Kenney has come before the town’s Board of Selectmen requesting funding assistance for other projects, including repairs to lining and manhole covers, a culvert installation for a Supplemental Environmental Project with the Department of Environmental Protection, as well as switching
6-inch water lines to 12-inch water lines along sections of road in town.
Earlier this spring, crews began work to connect those lines over a mile and a half of road on Main Street and down Seawall Road.
“We never got to finish the project because we ran out of money,” said Kenney. “We got a couple on Seawall (Road). We found that almost none of the services are attached. We had to jump (lines from) both sides of the street; that we weren’t expecting.”
Ideally, if all of the older 6-inch water lines were streamlined into the 12-inch lines, there would be fewer breaks each year, he added. Several thousands of dollars are spent annually addressing the water main breaks along Main Street and Seawall Road. Kenney also pointed out that the district does not carry a surplus to address those emergency expenditures, which is why it has asked the town for assistance.
Another $125,000 is listed under 2021 of the Capital Improvement Plan to finish switching those lines over so that all users on public water lines are on the 12-inch water main. There is another $75,000 listed under the 2021 plan for upgrades to the town’s water mains.
At the end of last year, long-awaited repairs to the Long Pond Pumping Station took place after voters agreed to help pay back a half a million dollars in funding for the project.
“You’ve got to take it in steps,” Kenney explained about the mountain of repairs and rebuilding needed to the district’s infrastructure and structures. “You can’t fix the middle without working on both ends.”