Costs Increasing for Falmouth's Unfunded Water Projects
By: Christopher Kazarian
When Town Meeting voted to approve the Siders Pond Road project in November, it subverted the town’s capital planning process.
While the project to repair the main on Siders Pond Road has been on Water Superintendent William R. Chapman’s list, it has not been a top priority.
“I want to address our infrastructure in areas that are going to benefit the most people in a sensible fashion,” he said.
To that end, he has a slew of preferred projects that have been deferred for several years due to the economic climate. At the top is putting the Mares Pond well back online.
Since April 2009 the well, which has the ability to produce 110 million gallons of water a year, has not been in operation due to lack of routine maintenance.
Mr. Chapman tried unsuccessfully at the Fall Town Meeting in 2009 to have the well repaired, but it was not until last spring the project was put to Town Meeting members for a vote.
Although it was approved by Town Meeting last April, voters shot down the request, which was packaged with 10 other capital projects at a cost of just over $1 million as part of a one-year capital exclusion.
Routine maintenance needed
The well failed, Mr. Chapman said, because his department does not have the financial resources to cover preventive maintenance to clean a screen at the bottom of the well column.
“When it fails, the screen gets encrusted with mineral deposits that are natural to the environment,” he said. “It is like an air filter in a car. When it is brand-new and clean, it is as efficient as can be. When debris gets on it, it loses its efficiency.”
Since Falmouth has been operating without the well for nearly two years, Mr. Chapman said, some may argue that “since it is off-line we obviously don’t need it, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are putting additional stress on our other water sources. The harder we pull on those, the more likely they will fail. With this well being down it is damaging our other wells.”
And once a well is down, he said, “we will be lucky to get them back to 80 percent of their original capacity. Ideally, we want to address them before they fail.”
That is why he would also like to fund capital projects that would clean both the Coonamessett Pond well and the Fresh Pond well. Those projects were also included in last May’s failed capital exclusion. The total cost for the repair of the Mares Pond well and the routine maintenance of the other two was estimated at $45,000.
Other projects Mr. Chapman has listed as high priorities include painting the 3 million-gallon water tank at Falmouth Technology Park.
“My predecessor had it on his list and I’ve asked for it the past four years,” he said. “It is unfortunate because had we addressed it originally, it would have cost $200,000. Now it is going to cost over $1 million.”
He, too, equated this to routine maintenance—similar to painting one’s house—that has been deferred to such a point that the structure underneath the paint has begun to deteriorate.
“Now we are starting to see steel issues,” Mr. Chapman said. “We wouldn’t have had those issues if we painted the tank when we first noticed the coating was failing.”
Aging water mains
He also would like to replace the water main on Main Street that was originally installed in 1899. The cost of the project, $3.6 million, may be high, but it would extend from Locust Street to Brick Kiln Road and is a need the town will have to address at some point in the near future.
Mr. Chapman hoped that the town would have the option of choosing to deal with the issue rather than being forced to.
“Should that fail it would shut down the entire business district,” he said. “If we do it when it is a planned project and is scheduled, it would be less disruptive than a complete failure.... The Main Street water main has the capability of crippling the town for a substantial amount of time.”
He also raised concerns about the AC water mains installed in various parts of town during the 1960s and 1970s that could lead to potential problems with water quality. Some of the streets include Camelot Court and Pebble Lane in North Falmouth, where there are bleeders in place to keep the water moving.
“If the water remains in contact with the mains there could be adverse health impacts,” Mr. Chapman warned.
These are the types of projects Mr. Chapman has repeatedly asked to be funded only to be put off year after year.
“I can ask for money, but it has to get appropriated,” Mr. Chapman said. “And I’m not in charge. I can only make requests.”
Delays increase costs
He realized that he is not alone given the current fiscal climate.
“It is frustrating, but it is frustrating for every department head...we are all sacrificing in one way or another,” he said. “In these tough economic times it is very harsh and the Fiscal Year 2012 budget doesn’t look that great.”
Acting Town Manager Heather B. Harper said she understood the concerns being raised by Mr. Chapman, noting they are felt in other departments, as well. She said there could be some help as the result of the increase in meals tax that was approved at Town Meeting in November.
A quarter of that annual increase, an estimated $125,000, is set to be appropriated solely for capital projects. And while half of that increase, roughly $250,000, has not been designated for a specific purpose, Ms. Harper said there is a chance it could also be allocated to fund the town’s capital program.
As to where she would first like to allocate those funds, Ms. Harper said that has yet to be decided, but she mentioned a new financial system for the town as well as building maintenance and new vehicles for the Falmouth Police Department as potential options.
Outside of the revenue from the meals tax, Ms. Harper said that funding for capital projects can come from two additional areas: fees and debt exclusions. In November selectmen approved the increase of water and wastewater rates that Ms. Harper said will go toward capital projects.
The other source, capital and debt exclusions, will undoubtedly be used in the future, Ms. Harper said. Despite the voters’ reluctance to fund the $1 million capital exclusion for the 11 capital projects last May, Ms. Harper did not view that as an argument against pursuing such a strategy again.
“We need to look at capital exclusions like we did with the DPW three years ago,” she said, in reference to the $3.2 million debt exclusion passed by voters in 2008. “That kept our basic public works assets in good condition.”
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