STONINGTON, Maine — Three weeks after its superintendent resigned in the wake of a comprehensive report outlining its shortcomings, the Stonington Water Company has hired a Winterport engineering consultant to run the town’s troubled water system.
The water company’s trustees, who are also Stonington town councilors, voted 5-0 on April 22 to hire Olver Associates to take on management of the water company for a year. Pending approval from each side’s lawyers and insurance checks, Olver is slated to take over on May 1.
The water company will pay Olver Associates about $71,000, which will fund a full-time operator’s salary and benefits, on-site visits by Olver’s engineers and applicable taxes and insurance costs.
Roger Stone, who resigned on April 5 after coming under fire for the myriad shortcomings in the system, cost the town about $50,000 annually in salary and benefits.
The trustees made the choice in an effort to right a troubled ship, said Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, who has served as acting superintendent of the water company since Stone resigned. None of the trustees has training or experience with municipal water systems.
“I believe they really wanted to get away from doing employee oversight themselves,” she said Monday. “It’s a job that requires a lot of responsibility and oversight, and I think also, given the needs we have, this was the best fit for the town right now.”
Olver Associates face a colossal task in turning around the Stonington Water Co. The company issued a report on the system and its flaws in March, outlining in detail for the first time what many in town suspected: The company was losing more water than it was selling.
The town recruited Olver Associates to study the system after reserves in the 50-foot storage tank dwindled to 15 feet in January. Town officials became worried that should a fire break out, the town wouldn’t have enough water to contain it.
An initial estimate from Olver put fixing or replacing all the bad spots in the system at nearly $2 million. That includes replacing thousands of feet of more than century-old water mains; replacing broken well pumps, flow meters and other equipment; and rehabilitating a series of failing wells.
All told, about 58 percent of the water pumped into the system is “lost” each year, according to Olver’s report. During the past five years, the amount of water lost has peaked as high as 80 percent.
Under the deal signed last week, the Winterport company will answer to the water company’s Board of Trustees, and both sides will work together to come up with a plan of attack for tackling the system’s problems within the constraints of the company’s roughly $140,000 annual revenue.
Olver Associates has pledged to help the water company seek competitive grant funding, and Billings-Pezaris said loans may be on the table as well.
As for the water company’s customers, which number about 270, Billings-Pezaris said every effort would be made to protect their rates from sharp hikes. Customers each pay about $72 per quarter, or $288 per year.
“We’re going to try not to impact the customers too much,” Billings-Pezaris said Monday. Efforts “may require a rate increase, but we’re not sure what it’s going to be until all the information is digested.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.