EGREMONT --- Town Meeting voters on Tuesday expressed frustration with Egremont Water Co. operations, rejecting the use of town funds to pay for the department’s significant debt payment for fiscal 2015.

Residents at the annual meeting filled the Mount Everett Regional High School auditorium to capacity, and overwhelmingly rejected paying down the department’s $110,050 debt payment, saying they didn’t want to bear debt stemming in part from mismanagement.

The vote came the same day that longtime Egremont Water Co. employee Jack Muskrat, who has been associated with two longstanding billing problems, announced his resignation, effective May 31.

"The water department is an enterprise fund, the spirit and intent of which is to keep all associated costs transparent and on one set of books ... the concept of taking over the debt would cloud the true cost and that is not recommended," Finance Committee Chairwoman Laura Allen said.

Voters also approved a $3.75 million budget, representing a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year. But before that vote, a $2,750 line item on a "longevity" bonus -- offered to town employees with between five and 20 years of experience, ranging from $200 to $750 -- was eliminated.

The meeting went on for more than three hours, and drew a large crowd of 197 of 938 registered voters, or 21 percent.

Prior to the water debt debate, residents engaged in a lengthy and polarized debate over a 3 percent Community Preservation Act surtax before voting in support. Before enactment, the tax would need to be approved twice more, likely in the November election and then at Town Meeting in 2015.

While some residents said they were against the tax, proponents said the CPA tax was an investment in their own community that would receive a matching state fund at 3 percent. The average taxpayer would have to pay $75.

The early part of the town meeting was dominated with questions and comments about the Egremont Water Co., which is owned by the town and overseen by a three-person Water Commission.

The Egremont Water Co. is in the third year of a 10-year plan to pay down the debt, which is being paid through an annual town subsidy and a $40 a month debt service customer charge. The total debt owed in July 2012 was $565,000, which is expected to be paid off by 2021, according to Selectwoman Mary Brazie.The elimination of the debt payment would have given the water commissioners the option of lowering the water rate or saving some money for capital expenses for fiscal 2015.

The Egremont Water Co. is in the third year of a 10-year plan to pay down the debt, which is being paid through an annual town subsidy and a $40 a month debt service customer charge. The total debt owed in July 2012 was $565,000, which is expected to be paid off by 2021, according to Selectwoman Mary Brazie.The elimination of the debt payment would have given the water commissioners the option of lowering the water rate or saving some money for capital expenses for fiscal 2015.

The Egremont Water Co. has come under fire for billing errors. In January, an audit revealed that customers had been undercharged for years -- a total of $104,557 from fiscal 2011 through 2013 -- because monthly bills were not sent out. The result is a budget deficit instead of surplus in each year, according to the audit.

Most recently, the town learned that Muskrat had been incorrectly reading meters for years.

Brazie urged voters to pay the debt, saying they already approve a year-end increase on the subsidy every year.

"We could have it operating in the black and solve some of the water department issues," Brazie said. "This is also a department of the town. It’s just like the schools, which not all of us utilize ... I feel this is a much more transparent way for taxpayers to pay for it."

Allen countered Brazie’s comment, saying, "Never in one year did we have to pay $110,050. It makes eminent sense to subsidize a department that is efficiently run with honest operational expenses, etc. Not to just throw money at them so the rates can be reduced or so they can begin to have some retained earnings."

While some residents supported using Egremont town funds to make the debt payment, others noted the Egremont Water Co. has 17 Great Barrington customers who would be let off the hook.

Residents expressed some frustration about the Water Commission, wondering why they haven’t been more proactive and asking whether the commission could be disbanded.

Selectman Charlie Flynn said he was upset Select Board and Finance Committee have taken on water department responsibilities tasked to the water commissioners. Flynn originally supported the town paying the water debt payment, but during the meeting he objected, saying the town shouldn’t pay for mismanagement.

The only water commissioner at the meeting was Steve Agar, who spoke after being called on by a resident.

Agar said the town could contract the water company services, if the services are affordable.

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata