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David Scribner
After years of planning, Great Barrington's building and health offices will soon vacate the crumbling, asbestos-contaminated Castle Street firehouse.

Town offices will finally leave old firehouse in December; Housatonic water woes surface again

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By Wednesday, Oct 10, 2018 News 7

Great Barrington — The long wait to move the town’s remaining offices out of the old Castle Street firehouse is almost over.

An entire upper corner of bricks at the roof line has fallen away on the firehouse front facade. Photo: Heather Bellow

At Tuesday’s selectboard meeting (October 9), Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin announced a schedule for the move of the health and building departments from the ailing firehouse to Town Hall, along with the movement and reconfiguring of the building to accommodate the new offices moving from across the street.

The movement will be accomplished in three phases. In the first phase, the treasurer/tax collector’s office will start its move Friday, Dec. 7, at noon. Work will continue over the weekend and into Monday, Dec. 10. The treasurer/collector’s office, which will be relocating elsewhere on the first floor, will likely reopen Tuesday, Dec. 11.

In phase two, the town clerk and the assessor’s offices will move the following weekend on roughly the same schedule as the treasurer/collector’s office did the preceding weekend. The town clerk and the assessor’s offices will reopen on the first floor Tuesday, Dec. 18.

The third phase is the granddaddy of them all. The health and building departments, which have been housed in the upper floor of the adjacent former firehouse, will commence the week of Monday, Dec. 17.

Tabakin said existing staff will help with the move, which involves large numbers of file cabinets and documents. New furniture has been purchased for the move. Consequently, some of the old furniture in the existing second floor of Town Hall, where the building and health offices will be situated, will be moved back to the firehouse for temporary storage. Meanwhile, the town will continue to employ the garage bays in the firehouse for storage for the Department of Public Works.

Brick fragments litter the roof of the1-story fire station addition. Photo: Heather Bellow

“We anticipate a smooth move,” Tabakin said.

The move has been anticipated for years. The building and health departments have been located in the old firehouse since the fire department moved to a new fire station on State Road about eight years ago.

As The Edge reported more than two years ago, the building has numerous problems, including asbestos and falling bricks; and the landlord, retired Rochester, N.Y, banker Thomas Borshoff, has been mostly unresponsive to complaints.

Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin, Ed McCormick and Thomas Borshoff in front of the Castle Street fire station in 2014, commemorating the sale of the historic structure to Borshoff. Photo: David Scribner

Borshoff purchased the property for $50,000 in 2014 as part of 20 Castle Street LLC, a partnership he formed with Great Barrington attorney and former longtime town moderator Ed McCormick, and Housatonic Water Works owner Jim Mercer.

Initial negotiations with the town started in the wake of the Great Barrington Fire Department’s move to a new $9.1 million facility on State Road in 2010. The sale was controversial because of the low sale price and the fact that, starting in the second year of Borshoff’s ownership, the town began to pay $2,500 per month in rent, plus insurance and utilities, for office space in a building it had previously owned. The term of the lease is for six years, so it would expire in 2020.

Thrilled to offload a troublesome 115-year-old building with expensive remediation problems and see it redeveloped, the town sold it after two years of torturous negotiations during the tenure of former Town Manager Kevin O’Donnell.

Under the agreement, the town is responsible for the cost of environmental remediation, mostly asbestos, of up to $270,000, with 20 Castle paying $80,000 of that. 20 Castle will contribute $3,000 for the town’s environmental consultant. But Borshoff has not initiated the remediation.

Housatonic Water Works complaints continue

The Great Barrington Selectboard listens to the concerns of Housatonic Water Works customers. From left, Steve Bannon, Ed Abrahams, Dan Bailly, Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Complaints about Housatonic Water Works, which serves the Housatonic section of Great Barrington, surfaced again last night as two customers spoke of the discolored water served up by the private water company.

Water Works customer Amy E. Taylor said she recently noticed brown water but was unaware that the company was flushing mains. The flushing is what causes the roily water, which is unsightly but poses no health risk to humans.

Taylor said she used to be able to plan ahead for the flushing, opting, for example, not to make spaghetti or the like when the flushing was taking place, “But now we don’t know what’s going to happen. This is a serious ongoing issue.”

Image courtesy Housatonic Water works

Tabakin was ready with an update on the situation. She, too, had received complaints about the water and asked Water Works treasurer Mercer about it. He said he had notified customers of the flushings on the company’s website, on its Facebook page and on recent bills to its customers.

See image at right of the Water Works notice about flushings on its Facebook page:

“We suggested to him that he use the CodeRED system and he chose not to,” Tabakin said. “He felt he was covered in terms of communicating with his customers, so we will encourage him to communicate more but it is a private company and that’s what they feel is the best way to do it.”

CodeRED is the town’s emergency alert system. It can be used to warn residents via text message or phone call about closings, weather alerts, evacuation notices, missing-child notices and the like.

In addition to Taylor’s in-person complaint, there at least two posts on the subject on the Great Barrington Community Board Facebook page.

“It is time for residents to seek legal advice,” wrote customer Debra Herman. “Political avenues have yielded no relief and HWW, by its own admission, has no long term solution for our water problems.”

An angry Michelle Loubert, who is also a member of the Great Barrington Finance Committee, expresses concerns about the quality of water in Housatonic as selectboard members Bill Cooke and Kate Burke look on. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Water Works customer and town finance committee member Michelle Loubert said she has not experienced the brown water but was concerned that the town was doing little to alleviate the aggravation that Housatonic residents are experiencing.

For their part, town officials have long said that, unlike the public Great Barrington water system, which provides water to most of the town, the Water Works is a private company and, as such, it is regulated by the state Department of Public Utilities and the Department of Environmental Protection.

“We have a community that doesn’t even have clean water and I don’t really care if it’s private or not,” Loubert said. “I really expect the town of Great Barrington to step up on this.”

“How?” asked Selectman Ed Abrahams.

Loubert suggested the selectboard ask Mercer to appear at a meeting and answer questions.

A bathtub of a Housatonic Water Works customer filled with water after recent water main flushings. Photo: Mellonie Noble

“We have mothers putting babies in dirty water for baths,” Loubert said, her voice rising in anger. “Come on. I’m just furious over this. I’m grinding my teeth over this. I really think maybe call Mr. Mercer in for a discussion regarding CodeRED.”

The Water Works has had its share of tangles with state regulators, most recently in the form of a “unilateral administrative order” from the DEP, which found the water system to be out of compliance with various regulations, including those governing its chlorination system. Mercer has disputed much of the data in the order.

Housatonic Water Works serves about 800 customers in the Housatonic section of Great Barrington as well as a small number in adjacent portions of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. Water service for much of the rest of the town is provided not by a private company, but by the Great Barrington Fire District, which functions as the town’s municipal water department.

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7 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    It would appear an education is in order. Pipes get flushed in public water systems as well. Flushing pipes is a good thing.
    HWC notifying on their website, Facebook page and even on bills is more than adequate notification of service. Utilizing codered for a planned maintenance task is inappropriate, and downright overreaction.
    Sorry, it’s hard to achieve credibility with playing the babies card,
    Merely let the fawcet run a few minutes to clear, be it in the Berkshires, Bronx or Boston.

    1. Joseph Method says:

      The babies card? That’s my baby 🙂 Amy Taylor is my wife. We couldn’t give her a bath because after running it for half an hour it was still brown. The next night was the same. During the day we had incredibly dark water for a few minutes that left a ring in the sink. The notification on the bill says that flushing will happen between October 9-23. So we should be be prepared for that to happen any night within that range?

      This isn’t about education. It’s not even about flushing. Those are all red herrings. I’ve lived in many places and never had brown water. If they were flushing the system we didn’t notice. This is about a private water company that has aging pipes that doesn’t have a plan for replacing them. It’s also about a company that does an incredibly bad job of communicating with its customers, which causes them to mistrust the company. The bottom line is that a private company has a greater burden of reassuring its customers and if it can ‘t do that then it shouldn’t be allowed to operate.

  2. John Grogan says:

    You don’t live in Housatonic, do ya John? You could run the tap all day and usually it will still run muddy if it’s a brown water day. And remember, I’m paying dearly, WAY more than I would if I were using GB water, to run that water down the drain! The Mercers can’t just throw up their hands on this, shrug and say “Hey, nothing we can do. We’re in code.” The water is disgusting way more often than it should be. I don’t know whzt the solution is but we need to figure a solution.

    1. Jamie Hutchinson says:

      I’m with John Grogan and all the others who’ve raised their voices about the water issues in Housatonic. In the Oct. 10 issue of the Berkshire Eagle, we hear James Mercer’s side of the story: “Mercer is also frustrated. He said these roily spells are nothing new for a company that’s been dealing with rusty water for decades. Yet customers, he added, are growing more agitated, regardless. ‘Some are reading the literature and are just very cognizant of what we’re doing, and others are just very irate and I don’t know what to say,’ Mercer said. ‘I’m surprised we’re getting so much press on this when every utility flushes their water lines and every utility has roily water when they flush.’ ” About all I can say in response is that Mercer is being disingenuous, not to mention engaging in victim blaming. I’ve lived in Housatonic since 2002. We’ve had roily water every now and then, either when the mains were being flushed or the HWW is repairing another busted line. But in recent months it’s happened again and again (and again). Blaming customers for being irate because the mains are being flushed won’t wash (pun intended). History suggests that something out of the ordinary (not just main flushing and irrationally cranky customers) is going on here. It would be gracious of Mr. Mercer and the HWW to acknowledge this fact and maybe, along with fixing the problem, offer a rebate to affected customers.

  3. Laura C says:

    The Mercers should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to happen. These people are paying for this water and on top of that they have to shell out money for bottled water to drink and cook with. I bet their water isn’t like this. They should be made to drink it in front of the selectboard the next meeting to show them how great it is.

  4. Ted B. says:

    So it says in the history of the Housatonic Water Works that the Mercers have owned it since 1984 . That’s about 34 years , even then parts of the system was 100 years old ! Let’s say they were thinking that they would have to address this situation and from the beginning, if there ownership started an internal fund for the day they would have to address this ancient plumbing problem ! But they didn’t ! They don’t have to ! They know if they cry to the state in the correct way they can get the rates elevated and promise to fix something ! May be not the real problem ! But why bother they a private company serving 840 customers or so that have no real teeth to fight back ! We are fucked ! Yes I live in Housatonic, and my water is brown ! And they’ll be flushing from Oct 9 to the 23rd …really ! Water is LIFE People, real simple ! We can’t leave this system and hookup to lets say John and Jane Does system because there isn’t another choice !

  5. Michelle Loubert says:

    One shouldn’t need to go on Facebook to find out what HWW is doing. This information should be issued to the customer and should be detailed and in real time. For example, I receive text alerts from the Town which are helpful. I get the same from my doctor, dentist, and CVS! When my daughter was at Emerson College, I would receive text alerts as well if something was going on there. Why can’t HWW do the same? And I know the Town would assist/guide HWW in rolling out such an effort (a type of public/private partnership). The expertise is there.

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