SMITHFIELD - Village Council's town hall meeting on Wednesday to provide information to water users about the pros and cons of the Jefferson County Water and Sewer Department taking over the village's water system filled the sanctuary of the Smithfield Presbyterian Church.
The original plans for the meeting were to meet with village water customers, but a group of Toronto citizens filled one pew and offered their thoughts on the project as well.
Nikki Pflug, council president, opened the session saying it would be beneficial to hear for customers in attendance and noted the water board members as well as council members Pat Freeland, George Harrah, Terry Barath and George Lindsay were present, along with Mayor Ted Boyd.
PACKED HOUSE — The Smithfield Council town hall meeting, regarding a discussion on the Jefferson County Water and Sewer Department taking over the village’s water system, brought out many village residents and those from other areas, along with the county commissioners and other public officials on Wednesday. - Esther McCoy
Dick Freeland, board of public affairs chairman, read the main objectives to be considered during the session, with two of the objectives not being satisfactory for Commissioner Thomas Graham, who was present along with Commissioners Tom Gentile and David Maple.
One issue regarding the county proposing the replacement of residential water meters and replacing water lines as needed was clarified by Graham.
"We won't come in and replace all water meters and lines," he said.
Likewise, another issue was discussed concerning if the village does not accept the county proposal, the county will pursue a lawsuit against the village to collect delinquent water payments, about $150,000; may seek a gradual separation from the village; and no longer provide the village with water.
"This was ruled invalid in court. If we bypass Smithfield, we would have to pay somebody else and we don't want that. And we have no intention of raising your water rates now, but there can be no guarantee about a raise in the future," Graham said.
Stan Leput asked what implementing a gradual separation of water service from the village meant.
Anthony Pecora, the county's attorney, explained it would be a gradual amount of time allowed for the village to seek other modern sources of water until it would be disconnected.
Resident John Domenick said he wants council to go after the mining operation that destroyed the village's water supply more than 12 years ago. He added that at the time he urged council to seek grant money for a water supply and that didn't happen. He said there is enough blame to go around regarding the village and county regarding supplying water.
Domenick asked Graham if the idea of the commission was to amass many small communities and then sell (water) to a private concern, and Graham said it was not.
"We paid off over $100,000 in water debt in earlier years, with residents all paying an extra $20 per month and had it paid up. Now we owe $150,000 in unpaid bills again. If this were to be paid, would it happen again? And if you took over the water, would you consider taking the sewage system as well," he asked.
Graham said the sewer system would be considered but it would need an expensive upgrade.
Gentile told Domenick it was being alleged the commissioners did not help with the village's water problem but he said he wasn't in office at that time, nor were Graham and Maple.
Domenick said he is concerned the Environmental Protection Agency had Smithfield officials the village would never get its water wells back, and an EPA official explained that with the bacteria in the water it is unfit for human consumption and cannot be treated, and would be cheaper to build a multi-million dollar treatment plant or go with the county.
William Kopras of Toronto said the village should steer clear of the county water system, saying it is expensive. "If you join the county water system, don't be crying about it later," he said.
Gentile cited residents of Bradley, who have been trying to get a water line to their community for 13 years, as people who would gladly pay a higher rate just to get water but said if the connection were made, they would be treated like every other customer in the system.
Ron Saxon, village water superintendent, said his department helps with water breaks in a big way. "The county uses our equipment and we had to pay a county man to work the weekend recently."
Maple explained each time the county expends labor for repairs, it needs to be paid.
Officials said the water system has now exceeded its design or capacity of pumps.
"We can't expand the project until situations are put in place, but we are going to expand whether we go through or around Smithfield," Maple said.
Resident Jack Graham asked if the former wells that supply water are being used, and Solicitor Bryan Felmet said the village is free to enter into a contract with Chesapeake Oil or Hess Corp. to sell the water from these wells, as a previous contract had not been utilized.
When asked why the county wanted the village system so badly, Maple explained the county did not want it. "But if this is a method of getting back, we just have to do it." He noted the village was always a few months behind in paying its bill.
Graham said the village is hurting financially, and the county can help.
"We are throwing the offer on the table and if you don't want it, we can't let the situation continue as is," he said.
Pat Freeland explained how the situation occurred, starting in 1999, council failed to take action concerning the mining water loss.
"We went to the county and you sold it to us for $2 per 1,000 gallons, but then raised it to $3 per 1,000, when it was noted that we failed to reciprocate on the price of selling water in the past. We were told we owed $200,000 and it took over six years to pay, but the county didn't pay the $20,000 they owed for water nor did the agriculture society pay the $10,000 owed. When we went to the county water, and you said you would help us with meters and it did not happen, and this has turned into a commissioners' meeting as your secretary is taking notes," she said.
Graham disputed some of her remarks.
"Our water is in jeopardy. I don't want to lose my water. Let the county take it if we can't maintain it," said resident Debbie Vendetta.
Councilman Lindsay said he is concerned about the area called the Slope that had a substandard line and wanted to know what it would cost if the county took over.
"My bill won't change that much but I am concerned about those people," he said.
Graham said it would have to be brought up to code and a tap-in fee would be $968.
John Sebring, Smithfield Township trustee, said he applauds the passion in the residents and said every citizen should have the option of having water. He added it is the responsibility of the commissioners to be responsive, upfront and honest in their dealings.
"They came to hear what you have to say but are bound by laws. The township cannot help you. We are under fiscal constraints like everyone else. You have to make the decision of what is best for Smithfield. You have to make the decision. On Dec. 1, will you have fire protection or be able to turn on a faucet?"
Residents then were asked if they wanted the county to take over the water supply.
Councilmember Barath said council will take the public's view into account at Tuesday's meeting.
Graham said they will await council's decision, telling Domenick they would not shut down on the sewage system request.
Maple said that whatever the agreement, it would take some time, while Gentile reminded residents the commission's ability to get grant dollars would be better than the village.