By Warren P. Russo
---- — MERRIMAC — The supply, distribution and, most of all, the cost of Merrimac’s drinking water remains at the top of the agenda for town officials.
At Monday night’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen, local resident Jim Trott reappeared with the results of the research on water revenues he had offered to perform at an earlier meeting.
Sounding less than hopeful, Trott said he had been in contact with the water pollution abatement trust fund, which will reportedly vote on Merrimac’s application next week.
“We’ll have to look elsewhere for a grant, though,” said Trott. He noted that Salisbury recently received $20 million in grants and Newburyport has also received millions, “but by comparison, it seems like we here in Merrimac are a nonentity.”
“The criteria for grants is based on population and what percentage is moderate or low-income,” explained Selectman Laura Mailman. “The demographics just don’t work for us the way they do in those communities.”
“We have reached out to our representatives,” said Selectman Ricky Pinciaro, “and the only advice they gave us was to move forward with the Town Square project, so this is really water under the bridge at this point.”
Trott suggested that it may be time for the board to go to state officials and “tell them it’s time they helped our town.”
“As a board and as a town, this is where we need to get active,” he added.
Selectmen Chairman Earl Baumgardner responded, “We’ve never made much headway on this issue with our representatives, but we’ve been mandated by the state to fix problems that were ignored for years by prior town officials.”
“We keep trying to go back to the well,” echoed Pinciaro, with yet another watery reference.
Mailman put the issue in perspective by explaining that there are thresholds which must be met to even qualify to apply for municipal grants.
“We just don’t have the demographics that would enable us to even apply for these grants,” she reiterated.
“For small towns like ours to survive with little business is very difficult, because the taxpayers end up paying for everything,” she added.
“Sure, we need more ratepayers, but it’s Catch-22 because to get more ratepayers, you’ve got to increase the scope of the system.”
“There are a lot of folks in town who are trying to do the right things,” added Baumgardner, “and since we got the Mass DOT to help while we have the streets torn up, we made the decision to go with that.
“We continue to turn those stones, and some funding that (Finance director) Carol McLeod found is going to save us some $400,000,” he continued.
“The townspeople need to know that we’re doing everything we can to control the cost, but we are nevertheless looking at a rate increase.”
Proposed new water rates for Merrimac remain stalled at $15 per quarter, up from the current base rate of $11 per quarter, which is an increase of 36 percent. The per-gallon rate is also scheduled to rise to 80 cents per gallon from the current rate of 68 cents, for a 17.5 percent increase.
Under the proposed new water rates, the average Merrimac household would pay $544 per year for water, up from the current figure of $462. The resulting $164,000 in additional revenue would be used to offset the cost of the town’s water main improvements.
The new water rate increases, if approved by Town Meeting, are scheduled to take effect next spring, to coincide with prime outdoor water usage for watering lawns, irrigating gardens and washing cars.
Trott, who moved to Merrimac five years ago, expressed his willingness to continue researching potential funding and grant opportunities.
“I’ve been told that state aid is available,” said Trott, “but no one seems to know how we can get it.”
Selectmen thanked Trott for his efforts, and urged him to return if he should find any potential funding sources to reduce the cost of water for Merrimac’s taxpayers.
Other items discussed at the meeting include:
Selectmen’s stipends: Baumgardner asked the other board members to think about whether they want to have a stipend, and if so, how much. A decision is expected at their next meeting on Jan. 14. According to Baumgardner, the stipend was $6,000 in the late 1980s, then it went down to $3,000 and finally to zero, where it remains today.
Well vents: During an inspection of the Bear Hill well field, DPW director Bob Sinibaldi discovered that the wells were not vented, as required by law. He consequently had the vents installed by the DPW, and his recommendation that the cost of this work be deducted from the contractor’s payment was unanimously approved by selectmen.
Fire alarms: A $1,900 contract with the L.W.Bills Co. for two inspections of the town’s fire alarms was approved. Apparently, it is the only company in the region that will service Merrimac’s particular fire alarm system. The company is also the inspector of record for the town’s elevators.