Participation in the annual Edward Farrar Utility District annual election more than doubled last week with a total of 44 voters casting ballots in the election held May 11.
Three incumbent district commissioners who ran unopposed were re-elected and four of the five articles up for consideration won approval.
Since it was formed in 2018 following the dissolution of the village municipality, the utility district’s main function is to oversee the municipal water and wastewater systems; it is funded by customer fees for those services.
Although approximately 1,500 people are eligible to participate in district elections, turnout remains chronically low as it was when the village municipality was in place. Last year, 21 people voted in the annual election; in 2020 there were 17 votes cast, according to district Clerk Carla Lawrence.
A key item that passed was Article 5 which authorizes the transfer to the town of Waterbury ownership of four properties previously owned by Waterbury Village. District and town officials agree that the properties do not pertain to the water and sewer operations.
By a vote of 24-20, voters agreed to shift to town ownership the roughly 50 square-foot area with the Waterbury welcome sign near the roundabout; the .16-acre municipal parking lot on Elm Street; the 1.3-acre Rusty Parker Memorial Park; and the approximate 40 acres along River Road where the Ice Center, dog park, playing fields, parking areas and trail head to the Perry Hill trail network are located.
The utility district still owns 51 South Main St., the property where the town offices were located before Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The building was razed and the lot has since been available for public parking. It is not included in the transfer article.
District commission chair Skip Flanders said commissioners are considering options for the property and they have signaled to Downstreet Housing that it could be considered for new housing.
Loan fund transfer failsThe only article to fail was Article 4. By a vote of 25-19, voters rejected the proposal to transfer to the town government two loan funds previously held by the village: an Urban Development Action Grant fund and a Community Development Block Grant fund. Both have been available to loan to businesses in the former village area of Waterbury. Under town management, they would be available to businesses in any part of the community.
The UDAG fund originated in 1984 as an incentive for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade to locate its ice cream factory in Waterbury. Once it was repaid, the fund has since been used as a revolving loan fund for a number of businesses in the village. At the end of 2021, its value was over $1.7 million with $1.12 million in current loans and the remainder as $646,000 in cash and investments, according to the utility district’s annual report.
The CDBG fund is much smaller with a value just under $75,000 at the end of 2021. Of that, $72,000 is currently loaned to the Ladd Hall Partnership for the apartments it developed in a former state office building on South Main Street after Tropical Storm Irene.
In the informational meeting on May 3 prior to the utility district election, Municipal Manager Bill Shepeluk said the funds have been “a big boon to the community” over the years.
During the town budgeting process ahead of Town Meeting Day, Shepeluk proposed moving the funds to town management as one step toward eventually merging the utility district into town government. Town and utility district officials had already been discussing the property transfers last fall.
Shepeluk pointed out that moving the funds to town government would be nominal given that utility district voters are also town residents. He underscored that in the May 3 discussion of the utility district election articles. “You’re really moving money from your right pocket to your left pocket,” he said. “I think it’s good for EFUD. I think it will be good for the town and I hope it gets approved.”
Asked after the vote about the fund transfers failing, Flanders said he and was among the “no” votes. As it turned out, he explained, the commissioners themselves had changed their view on the question after they approved the warning for the annual election. Flanders said he and others voted against the measure because they decided the move was premature. “We got concerned about the future of the funds to turn them over now,” he said.
The timing concern has to do with the fact that the process has begun to find a successor to Shepeluk who is retiring at the end of 2022. Select board and utility district members have contracted with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to facilitate that search and that has made the imminent transition more real, Flanders said.
“We’re pleased with how it’s been used over the years and we came to realize that Bill’s not going to be here to manage it,” he said of the $1.7 million revolving loan fund. “We felt it wasn’t right to transfer at this time.”
Without approval to transfer the loan funds, a related measure now will not happen — the utility district will not receive $600,000 in federal funds coming to the town as budgeted by the select board this year.
The property transfer and loan fund transfer articles were intended as steps toward ultimately merging the utility district with town government. During the town budget process, Shelepuk proposed and the select board approved allocating $600,000 of the $1.5 million the town is receiving from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to the utility district. The appropriation was intended to pay for upgrading and incorporating the water system for the Kneeland Flats Mobile Home Park into the utility district system and possibly some other upgrades to water lines along Route 100 depending on costs.
The ARPA allocation to the utility district and the loan funds transfer were intended to happen as a “quid pro quo” — the ARPA funding allocation being contingent on EFUD district voters approving the loan funds being moved to town management.
“That does mean the town won’t transfer the $600,000 of ARPA funds to EFUD,” Shepeluk said after the vote. “The [ARPA funds] transfer was contingent on the UDAG transfer only.”
Flanders said he accepts that consequence. “We expect to pursue other options” to move forward with the mobile home park system project, he said.
The property transfers, however, were not connected with the loan fund transaction and they can happen as specified in the article the voters approved, Flanders said, noting that the properties already are maintained by shared municipal staff.
Also on the ballot were two other articles and three seats on the utility district’s Board of Commissioners to fill. None of the elections were contested. Lawrence “Lefty” Sayah, Natalie Sherman, and Cindy Parks all received 40 votes. Sayah and Sherman were re-elected to one-year terms; Parks will start a new three-year term.
Voters also approved 43-1 Article 1 setting compensation for commissioners at $1,450 for the chair and $1,200 for each commissioner. A sum of $1,650 also was approved for the district clerk/treasurer to include payments for 2020 and 2021 when the item was omitted from the ballot in error.
Article 2 was unanimously approved 43-0 authorizing the district to borrow up to $200,000 for wastewater system repairs and upgrades in the coming year.
More information about the utility district is online at waterburyvt.com under the Departments heading including the 2021 annual report (also available in print at the town clerk’s office).