Letter to the Editor: Piedmont should resist being pressured into water deal
To the Editor:
We attended the public meeting that was held before Wednesday's (6/17/2020) Piedmont Council meeting.
Greg Harvey gave a presentation to explain the upcoming Water Source Project.
Almost every detail of the proposed contract with Westernport has changed since it was last discussed publicly. Up until Wednesday, all we knew was that the contract called for Piedmont to be a single commercial customer of the Town of Westernport, and that Piedmont would pay one $25 tap fee per month.
Now, we are going to pay 271 residential tap fees each month. This amounts to $6,775 per month for tap fees. The water itself is much less expensive, but the total amount we will be paying to Westernport every month has just about doubled since the last report.
This new agreement is totally different from anything the Piedmont Council has told us before.
Mr. Harvey also stated that the current water rate increase that is being reviewed by the PSC has nothing to do with the water source project. Actually, it is closely related due to the fact that the water rate increase is meant to provide Piedmont with enough money to run their water treatment plant as-is. Piedmont asked for the increase so that they would stop losing money on the water plant. We don't have to connect to
Westernport because our water plant is too expensive. The PSC will make sure of that with the rate increase. So what is the real reason for the Westernport project?
Mr. Harvey said at the presentation that Piedmont was going to generate a lot of extra money for itself with this new Westernport water source. He seemed to indicate that we might be able to absorb some of the cost of future rate increases by paying the difference from this "extra money.”
There is a problem with this: The water rate increase will give Piedmont all the money they need to run their own water plant RIGHT NOW, treating our own water from whatever source we want to get it from.
If we connect to Westernport, Piedmont's cost to supply the citizens water will go down. Therefore, the water rates will also have to go down accordingly because the rates are based on our water system's expenses.
There will be no "extra money,” because the money generated by our water utility can only be used to pay expenses of the water system. None of it can be used to pay Piedmont's other expenses, therefore the money "saved" by connecting to Westernport will not help the cash shortage that Piedmont is
Piedmont's current case with the PSC is about raising the rates enough so that our water plant can pay for itself. At that point, we do not need to purchase potable water from anyone in a year or 10 years. We have a functioning water plant that financially supports itself and gives Piedmont water
Mr. Harvey also showed a chart detailing the loan and bond payments that Piedmont pays already, totaling over $14,000 per month. A large part of this debt goes toward paying for the improvements we recently made to our water plant. Many of these improvements are designed to last for decades. We will be wasting this money if we switch over to buying potable water from Westernport.
Comparisons were made to other cities that have connected across the border for their water. Ridgeley gets water from Cumberland, but can you really compare the water treatment plants of Westernport and Cumberland? Ridgeley adds very little load to Cumberland's system. Cumberland has almost 20,000 people and Ridgley has 600, which is 3% of Cumberland. Westernport has 1,700 people, and Piedmont has about 800, which is 47% of Westernport. There is no way that Piedmont will be getting a water supply that is as
reliable as Ridgleey has from Cumberland.
Before we connect to Westernport, we should be very certain
that their treatment plant and pipes are able to provide 50% more water.
Mr. Harvey used the figures from Dunn Engineering's flawed Preliminary Engineering Report to tell us why connecting to the Savage River would be too expensive. As I have stated in at least two public meetings, they quote costs for the full replacement of seven miles of waterline, when the entire waterline up to the Piedmont Dam is only five miles at the most. They also have never considered other viable options for
drawing water from the Savage River from a point closer to Piedmont. There are definitely ways that we
can draw water from the Savage no further than two or three miles from our water plant at most. This would
make the Savage River connection one of the most economical choices. These facts are being ignored.
Piedmont's historic water rights specifically give the town the right to draw water from the Savage River at the "Blue Hole,” also known as "Deep Hole,” next to the paper mill's woodyard.
We only need 50-300 gallons per minute from the Savage, according to Dunn Engineers' own report. It would not require an entire dam across the river to supply this rate. A weir and intake could be constructed at the Deep Hole, and approximately 2.5 miles of pipeline would be required. Some of that pipeline was replaced in recent years and can be re-used.
The mayor and council recently approved a $200,000 Bond Issue "just in case" we need it to finish the water project. We were told we couldn't afford a Savage River source project because we would have to put up $100,000-$150,000 of our own before we could get funding. Yet we are able to borrow more than that "just in case.” How about using it to start our Savage River project? Mr. Harvey and Mr. Lively have
already told us there is other funding, but it isn't 100%. Piedmont could be using the bond to cover the
rest. There is no financial reason that we should be forced to agree to an out-of-state water supply.
It is a lie that we are getting "100%" funding for this project, because it does not take into account all of the issues and future costs. It is also highly likely that we will have to use the bond money. There would not have been so much pressure to approve it if it was not expected to be needed.
And finally, the true cost of giving up our historic Savage River water rights are never factored into the
Westernport project. Over a 40-year period (the same as the Westernport contract), we will pay well over $3 million in fees to Westernport. This money would have been invested into our town and our water system. Rights to access the Savage River are worth millions of dollars. Piedmont can't afford to give that
It felt like the main goal of Mr. Harvey's presentation was to sell us on the idea of signing a 40-year contract to connect to Westernport's water system. He did not present the other options fairly or accurately.
This project has been designed to meet the needs of Verso Inc., Region 8, Dunn Engineers, and others.
There has been very little consideration given to the rights of the people of Piedmont, and to the future of our finances and water supply.
Very few people in Piedmont have expressed a desire to give up our water plant and our water rights.
Citizens have come to every public meeting and objected to every bond issue and engineering report that has been released. The mayor and every member of the council have stated multiple times in public that "None of us want to go to Westernport's water.” Yet no real action has been taken to prevent this from happening.
The mayor and council of Piedmont should be telling IJDC, Region 8, Dunn Engineers and our state representatives that the current Piedmont Water Source Project is unacceptable as it stands.
They should be demanding that a new engineering report be written with correct and accurate cost figures.
All of the costs of any project that involves purchasing raw or potable water from outside of the community should be fairly and completely estimated.
If all of the facts are considered, it should be clear to everyone that Piedmont should continue to resist being pressured into this bad water deal, and should demand that they be allowed to keep and use their historic water rights. The mayor and council are in neglect of their legal and ethical responsibility to the
citizens if they do any less.