Housatonic Water Works: Private gains should not outweigh public good

The Town of Great Barrington should take into consideration the problems it could be taking on, and thus, be prepared to protect our townspeople against financial, regulatory, legal and other liabilities.

To the editor:

The Select Board appears to be moving toward possible consolidation of Housatonic Water Works (HWW) into Great Barrington’s Fire District (GBFD) to address the issues concerning HWW. Nothing is more important than to provide our people with clean, safe water. While there are compelling reasons to consolidate, the financial and operational arrangements should be fair to the Town.

HWW has operated as a private entity under co-owners and officers, Fred and Jim Mercer, for quite some time. After reviewing the Massachusetts DEP reports, HWW’s annual filings and the Select Board’s commissioned report, “Conceptual Water Systems Management Framework Project” by DPC Engineering of Longmeadow, it is clear there are many advantages associated with a consolidation. These include lower costs for customers, lower management expenses, improved water quality. However, the Town of Great Barrington should take into consideration the problems it could be taking on, and thus, be prepared to protect our townspeople against financial, regulatory, legal and other liabilities, especially if it were to take over HWW by eminent domain.

Concerns include the following:

First, any appraisal of HWW should consider the poor shape of its pipes relative to GBFD’s. The DPC Engineering report shows that 37 percent of HWW’s pipes need timely replacement as compared to 17 percent of GBFD’s. To put HWW’s pipes at parity with GBFD’s, its appraised value could be discounted by at least $4.4 million.

Second, the Town should be careful not to transfer this private water company’s financial, legal and operational liabilities onto the backs of GB’s public at large. Caution should be taken when private gains vs. public good are in question. This includes legal liabilities and the cost of compliance. HWW’s non-compliance issues appear to have problems of continuing concern. It has frustrated the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over its noncompliance with a series of engineering and operational requirements prescribed by the DEP to ensure continuous water safety. In its stern letter of October 29, 2018, the DEP cites violations involve fines and imprisonment. Follow-up letters of July 29 and August 12, 2020, reiterate DEP’s requirements and HWW’s responsibilities as a public utility.

The Longmeadow report also cites the differences of how each water company has spent its funds. Using their figures and the Massachusetts State filings, HWW paid more than 50 percent of its revenues on salary and benefits for just two officers. This compares with less than 35 percent at GBFD. In their analysis of a possible combined entity, the consultants have made no provision for the officers of HWW. The questions are left: What went unpaid? Pipe replacements? Safety compliance? Customer service?

Finally, full disclosure of this private company is needed. If the water companies are to be consolidated, the Town should be indemnified for contingent liabilities so the Town is protected from the financial, legal, regulatory and operational issues that may arise. A 10-year post audit should be required as a condition of consolidation as well as a reserve against significant unknown conditions.

Sharon Gregory, Great Barrington

Trevor Forbes, Housatonic

Denise Forbes, Housatonic