Village hunting for funding for water system upgrade

By EJ Conzola II

The village of Whitehall will continue to seek grants and low-interest loans to pay for upgrades to its water and sewer systems after having a grant application “tossed out on a technicality,” Mayor Julie Eagan said Jan. 17 during an annual public update on the village’s water situation.

The update is required as part of a consent decree obtained 12 years ago by the state Department of Environmental Conservation that mandates the village take steps to upgrade its facilities, Eagan said. Although the village has been unable to make any significant strides on system improvements, the state has given the community a lot of leeway as officials try to move forward, she said.

The DEC recognizes that the needed improvements – expected to cost more than $1 million – are very difficult for a small community such as Whitehall and has so far been content to see that the village has been attempting to address the issue, Eagan said.

“We’ve just been packing at it,” Eagan said. “We didn’t have the money 12 years ago and we certainly don’t have it now.”

Property owners in the Whitehall water district currently pay the second highest rates in the county, Eagan said. Many of those owners are on fixed incomes, and even the recent modest increase in rates has been difficult for many people to handle, she said.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” she said.

The village had applied for grants and loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Office of Rural Development, as well as the state DEC, but has so far been unsuccessful in obtaining the needed funds. The most recent application to the DEC was rejected because of a missing signature on one page of the voluminous application, she said.

Board member Tim Watson noted that the projected cost of the upgrades has risen roughly 40% since the decree was first issued 12 years ago.

Other costs associated with the water system have risen as well, Eagan noted. The taxes the village pays to the town of Dresden have jumped after that town’s revaluation drove up the assessed value of the village’s water collection system at its Pine Lake reservoir, causing the village’s tax bill to skyrocket from less than $14,000 to $46,728, she said.

Improvements mandated by the state to the water system will undoubtedly push that assessment up even higher, she added.

“It’s like a perfect storm,” she said.

In addition to the consent decree, the village is also facing a demand by the state Department of Health to find an emergency backup water source, Eagan said.

The Health Department has been making similar demands of municipalities throughout the state, demands officials in some of those communities – especially those with small water systems – have complained place a significant financial burden on system users.

“There’s not a lot of relief in sight . . . when it comes to our taxpayers,” Eagan said.

The demand was part of an annual survey of water systems conducted by the Health Department. It was the only significant finding of the survey, which otherwise was positive about the village’s water system, Eagan said.