Long Pond, the reservoir for Housatonic Water Works, a small private water company that has come under fire for poor quality and high rates. Photo courtesy Housatonic Water Works

Selectboard mulls options on Housatonic Water Works, including eminent domain

If Great Barrington wanted to force a sale of the HWW, it wouldn't be the first time the town had tangled with the Mercer family over eminent domain.

Great Barrington — The selectboard has taken the advice of the town’s professional staff to complete a second study of the Housatonic Water Works and coordinate with the company and its state regulators to improve the quality of water its customers receive.

But perhaps most significantly, the board also voted unanimously Monday night in a Zoom meeting to continue work on an independent appraisal of the value of Housatonic Water Works in the event that the town decides to buy it, either by making an offer or perhaps through something resembling eminent domain.

A water filter filled with residue overnight in a Housatonic residence.

The private company has been plagued by a series of actions taken by state officials and, over the last few years, a barrage of complaints from ratepayers about brown water caused by rusting water mains.

The small company, which serves fewer than 900 customers in the Housatonic section of Great Barrington, has been the object of numerous complaints from ratepayers who have grown more and more agitated, both in Town Hall confrontations with officials and on social media. Others have complained of inadequate communication from the company about upcoming water main flushings that cause the discoloration. Housatonic Water Works has 17 miles of water mains and 55 fire hydrants.

Water service for much of the rest of the town is provided not by a private company but by the Great Barrington Fire District, a quasi-public entity with taxing authority that essentially functions as the town’s municipal water department.

The fire district is a much larger operation than HWW, with approximately 40 miles of water mains, more than 300 hydrants and 1,643 connections. It is managed by a Prudential Committee and professional staff whose offices are on East Street near the Department of Public Works.

For both the fire district and the HWW, water quality is monitored by the state Department of Environmental Protection and rates are regulated by the Department of Public Utility.

Town manager Mark Pruhenski presented the board with an executive summary of the situation along with possible remedies. For at least two years, the town, which has no authority over the privately owned HWW, has been working with state regulators and representatives from both water companies and the town’s engineers to find a long-term solution to the problem, Pruhenski explained.

On left, a glass containing water from a tap in Housatonic; at right, by comparison, a glass of filtered water.

In the summer of 2018, the town hired an engineering firm to conduct a preliminary survey of the water systems in town. Click here to read the report, obtained by the NEWSletter’s Eileen Mooney from the town and shared with her readers, including The Edge.

Pruhenski said he expects that a Phase 2 study would “take a deeper dive” into the problem. The full appraisal would cost roughly $50,000 and fiscal 2021 engineering funds were approved for use by the state Department of Revenue as of July 15, 2020. Pruhenski added that state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, told him he has filed legislation on Beacon Hill for the state to foot the bill. But even if the state doesn’t pay, the town has the money set aside, Pruhenski said.

Housatonic Water Works co-owner Jim Mercer at a DPU hearing in Housatonic to discuss rate increases. Photo: David Scribner

HWW has made upgrades over the years that have forced rate increases but company treasurer Jim Mercer has said that additional repairs would likely necessitate further rate increases that DPU would probably not approve.

Mark Palumbo, a former captain in the Great Barrington Fire Department, told the board that for HWW’s water and firefighting purposes, it’s not just “a matter of quality but quantity.”

Palumbo, perhaps better known as the first responder who saved former deputy fire chief Ed McCormick’s life, pointed to statistics indicating that fighting a fire in Housatonic would present far more challenges than in Great Barrington because of greatly inferior capacity and diminished water pressure from HWW’s 55 hydrants.

Several HWW customers complained about water quality, lack of responsiveness from the company to complaints and poor notice of upcoming line flushings. Others complained of how the poor quality has forced them to install expensive filtration systems.

Click here to listen to or download an audio recording of Monday night’s meeting, produced by The Edge. Fast forward to 21:00 to hear the discussion about HWW. The board ultimately agreed to have the HWW status as a standing item on its agenda until the situation is resolved.

Housatonic Water Works hydrant at the Housatonic Fire Station.

If Great Barrington wanted to force a sale of the HWW, it wouldn’t be the first time the town had tangled with the Mercer family over eminent domain. Jim Mercer’s father owned land across Route 7 from Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Frederick J. Mercer purchased the 27-acre property in 1973 for $78,000 and “subsequently developed it into one of the first fully-permitted landfills in the state,” the Berkshire Eagle reported in 1995. Fred Mercer operated the facility privately for 14 years and, in 1988, he started leasing it to the town.

“One year later, the town acquired the property by eminent domain after negotiations to purchase it from Mercer proved fruitless,” the Eagle reported. “The town took the parcel in June 1989 and offered Mercer the sum of $476,200, which he said was ‘grossly inadequate.'”

Fred Mercer sued on the grounds that the town did not pay fair-market value, as it is required to do in property seizure by eminent domain. In October 1995, after a trial of some two weeks, Mercer won a judgement in Berkshire Superior Court of $1.8 million.

“It’s a fair verdict,” the elder Mercer told the Eagle.