Woodstock Selectboard weighing water system purchase 

Army National Guard Sgt. Connor Mello carries a section of pipe across Elm Street Bridge with the help of Tess Malloy, who works in customer relations at the Woodstock Aqueduct Company, in Woodstock, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. The potable water pipe will replace the fire hose connecting two fire hydrants across the river, allowing the town to access drinking water while the Woodstock Aqueduct Company works on a permanent solution to a broken pipe. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Army National Guard Sgt. Connor Mello carries a section of pipe across Elm Street Bridge with the help of Tess Malloy, who works in customer relations at the Woodstock Aqueduct Company, in Woodstock, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. The potable water pipe will replace the fire hose connecting two fire hydrants across the river, allowing the town to access drinking water while the Woodstock Aqueduct Company works on a permanent solution to a broken pipe. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America file photo — Alex Driehaus

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-12-2024 10:00 PM

Modified: 01-16-2024 3:06 AM


WOODSTOCK — The Selectboard gave Municipal Manager Eric Duffy permission last week to dig further into the possibility of the town purchasing the Woodstock Aqueduct Co., the town water supplier that has been privately held since 1880.

A working group created by the board found that it would be “in the best interest” of the town to take ownership of the company, which provides water to 770 connections.

Among its customers are Woodstock public schools, the Woodstock Resort and Billings Farm and Museum.

While issues with Woodstock Aqueduct’s reliability have been simmering quietly for decades, the company’s operations were wrenched into focus last July when a flooding Ottauquechee River damaged distribution pipes. The set off a chain reaction of repair needs that cut off users’ potable water and left them on a “do not drink” notice for 10 days.

But issues with the system were com ing to a head before the floodwaters rose.

The water system’s problematic layout has meant that a quarter of the nearly 100 fire hydrants on the company’s system can’t maintain adequate pressure while the town’s wells are running.

That’s left the company running afoul of state regulations for years, and due to the system’s deficiencies, the company and the state can’t offer permits to developments that would worsen the pressure issues.

At a public meeting in August, company owner Jireh Billings made clear three options for the entwined fates of the town and the company: Either the company finances its own repairs, it sells out to a private entity or it sells to the town.

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“The problem right now is there needs to be an investment made in the company to the tune of at least $5 million,” Billings said in a Thursday phone interview. “That likely has to come from an outside source, and if it came from an outside source, that investor would basically control the system. And it’s not a very good idea that we let outside money be in control of Woodstock’s water.”

He urged the town to consider taking ownership of the company and, ultimately, so did the working group created by the Selectboard to digest Billings’ pitch.

“I first became interested in the subject because a developer was expressing frustration that they couldn’t get permits for water in order to do some infill development in the east end,” said Charlie Kimbell, a member of the working group and a former state legislator. “Since then, there have been cases where owners of properties haven’t been able to get extensions for permits, so have had to drill their own wells.”

Other advantages of town ownership include access to state and federal grants, as well as low-interest loans, which the private company isn’t eligible for, Kimbell said. The ramifications of that exclusion were obvious when the town was trying — and failing — to chase down grants to help the town water system recover from flooding in July, he said.

If the company was sold to a private entity, water rates would likely be higher, as the new owner still wouldn’t have access to those other forms of funding, and would inherit a heap of deferred maintenance, Kimbell said.

At Monday’s Selectboard meeting, Woodstock resident Roger Logan also urged the Selectboard to take ownership.

“Right now, the fact a new home or new business can’t connect is obviously severely crippling our ability to grow and diversify our economy,” Logan said. “From what I’ve seen, I don’t see there’s really any other choice besides going ahead and buying it.”

But the intricacies of such a transaction are still up in the air, including which assets of the company would be purchased, at what price and who’d be paying for them.

As of Thursday, any mention of a possible deal between the town and the company remains off the March Town Meeting ballot, said Duffy, the municipal manager, in an interview with the Valley News.

“If the Selectboard decides to go forward with the purchase, if there’s a need to do a bond, it would have to be a special meeting and the residents would have to vote,” Duffy said.

He emphasized that he has not been given any power by the board to begin negotiations and has only been tasked with gathering more information.

The company was incorporated by a handful of Woodstock businessmen in 1880.

Over 140 years later, Billings is the fourth generation of his family to steer the company, and more than half of the company’s stock, of which there are 2,000 shares held by 35 individuals, remains in the Billings name.

With details about an acquisition still to come, “it’s premature” to have any mention of it on the ballot in March, said Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Susan Ford.

But at the meeting, Woodstock resident Jill Davies made a pitch for urgency.

“It’s lovely to think you have all the time in the world to make a decision,” but the truth is, Davies continued, “that you have what could be a public utility owned by a private company that is not putting any investment money into their system.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.