ESSEX | Too often, the math for public utility projects in the Adirondacks doesn’t add up. Costs are measured in millions, while the users who must pay for them are measured by the dozens.
Scrapping for grant funding, meeting ever-evolving state regulations and keeping the public appraised of how it all fits together are weighty tasks in a job lacking in glamor. Yet the Town of Essex has done it well enough to receive the annual Wastewater System of the Year award bestowed by the New York Rural Water Association.
“It was a surprise to me, because I didn’t even know the award existed,” said Essex Supervisor Ken Hughes. “I was shocked, impressed and honored all at the same time.”
This award is based on the town's excellence of management and operations, willingness to pilot ideas to better the wastewater system, and the dedicated service to the community.
Hughes said a number of people in the town deserve the credit, none more so than Chief Operator Tina Gardner. “She’s been great — she knows the business, and can get the job done and do it in a financially responsible way,” he said.
To make the system the best it can be, the town has been working with Steve Grimm, a wastewater technician for the Rural Water Association. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Grimm provides on-site technical assistance, including budgeting, planning, operation and maintenance, to small wastewater systems across New York State.
Gardner said he’s helped the town identify three areas of focus: infrastructure stability, financial viability and stakeholder understanding.
The job of chief operator is complex and covers a wide expanse of ground, from microbiology to public relations. “A lot of stakeholders don’t understand the costs — it’s expensive, but I understand why it’s expensive,” Gardner said. New state regulations require frequent equipment upgrades, for example, and the limestone ledges beneath the topsoil exponentially increase the laying of pipe.
These costs must be borne among 140 customers, so even if a capital project is funded over 30 years, the quarterly costs can be considerable to the ratepayer.
“We know that our rates are high — the highest in Essex County, unfortunately,” Hughes said. “We are working hard to migrate our fee structure from what we currently use to an EDU model, which provides improved equanimity across the district.”
An EDU, or Equivalent Dwelling Unit, is typically the amount of water or sewer service used by an average single-family home. In Essex, commercial establishments are currently paying too little, based on what they use, while residences are paying too much. “We’re trying to find that magical spot” where everyone is paying fairly, Hughes said.