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Spring has finally arrived after a long and bitter winter, and not soon enough. As the lawns and fields green up quickly it reminds me that life around our town is going to accelerate into a fantastic summer. Our summer residents and snowbirds are starting their return and we welcome them back. It is amazing to see how the town transforms from winter to summer, almost like a recurring emergence of a chrysalis.
There is a lot happening and a lot planned as we work into the summer season. The festivities of the 250th celebration are in the final planning stages, and they should be great. The new Farmers Market Pavilion is starting construction and should be ready by the market opening day. The staff for the children’s summer camp have been appointed as well as our youth park ranger staff. The Willsboro Golf Course has opened under town management and seems to be off to a very successful season. The permits are in place for our new beach at Noblewood - I encourage all to come enjoy the beach sometime this summer.
We will soon have a new business in town. The new owners of the Old Adirondack chair factory are scheduled to close on the property on May 5th. The new owners are Champlain Valley Milling Company who are moving over from Westport. They produce organic flour from grains. It will take several weeks to transform the building to a new facility, but they plan to hold an open house when they have it ready. I want to welcome Champlain Valley Milling to Willsboro, we are glad you have come to be a part of our business community.
The projects on the Boquet River are going out to bid. The stream bank stabilization project and the dam removal project are in the process of getting final permits from the APA, DEC, and Corps of Engineers. Funding for the dam removal is still in question, particularly to timing of funding for work to be done at low water flow. US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Lake Champlain Basin Program are working to provide that funding.
The proposed update to the town zoning ordinance is currently under review by the Adirondack Park Authority. The rewrite was a great team effort of town employees, members of the planning and zoning boards, and the public. It was bottom to top examination and review of zoning, practices, and considered changes that have occurred since the 1970’s (when our current ordinance was written), as well as the findings and conclusions from the town’s comprehensive plan. Once the draft is approved by the APA, we will be scheduling public hearings on the draft prior to adoption. More to come on that once we get feedback from the APA.
We have two looming vital issues that are going to affect the town critically in the short term that everyone should be aware; wastewater treatment plant rebuild and EMS service changes.
Sewer District: In 2013 the Town of Willsboro Wastewater Treatment plant suffered a series of cascading casualties that resulted in total failure of the sewer plant. Willsboro had a Rotating Biological Contactor (RBC) primary treatment system that had been installed over twenty years previously. Because the plant had no redundancies, meaning no way to isolate the system while in operation, there was no way to conduct periodic maintenance on the system components; it was never taken offline. This eventually led to system catastrophic failure beginning with the secondary treatment clarifiers. The town proactively contracted for immediate replacement of the clarifiers, financing that with a $450,000 commercial bond. While this repair was being organized the RBC, which is responsible for the primary biological treatment of the wastewater, catastrophically failed and was put out of commission.
This emergency condition required the development of a temporary fine bubble activated sludge treatment system within the physical infrastructure of the treatment plant. Our operator Bob Murphy, DEC, and our engineers worked seamlessly to develop and install this system. Since this was put online our results from effluent testing have been better than at any time in the history of the treatment plant. But, this system is not approved for unlimited use by DEC, and therefore DEC is in the process of issuing the town an order on consent to build a new improved wastewater treatment system to be started in 2016 and completed by 2019.
The town received a grant in 2013 to conduct an engineering report which evaluated options for a new treatment system. This report provided a number of alternatives with the minimum cost alternative starting at around $1.5 million. Add this to the existing debt on the sewer district of approximately $700,000 and the cost on debt service is going to rise dramatically, very likely next year. That would mean that total sewer costs to users would go up to approximately $1000 per year or higher.
In order to try to alleviate that cost increase we are trying to secure grant funding to finance the construction. In order to qualify for this funding we have to show that there are a majority of users whose median income is at or below a certain level. That is why the town has distributed income surveys to the sewer district and held public information sessions on this. We need a response rate of at least 75%, thus far it has been below 25%. The data collected is completely confidential and no town employees will be looking at it. The figures are collated by an organization in Elizabethtown called HAPEC. I would ask one last time for help in getting this accomplished so we don’t have such a dramatic rise in sewer rates.
EMS Services: The ambulance service for Willsboro and Essex is in jeopardy. They are on the verge of not being able to answer ambulance calls because of manning to fill out a 24/7 duty roster of EMTs and ambulance drivers. In short, we are on the verge of not being able to provide emergency medical services on a timely basis when urgently needed. The volunteers in the EMS service from Willsboro and Essex have been working for a number of years to establish a non-profit corporation that would operate the EMS service for both towns. Currently each town’s EMS service is held by the respective Fire Districts.
By New York State law Fire Districts are prohibited from charging health insurance companies for ambulance services. If the EMS service is moved out from under the Fire District then the services provided can be billed. This would allow for additional revenue for the EMS squad to hire professional EMT personnel to cover gaps in duty manning.
The newly formed EMS corporation is asking each Town Board for a resolution of support for this effort. If it occurs the support and costs of the EMS service would transfer to the two towns on a proportional basis to total assessable value of each town. This would roughly mean that Willsboro would pick up at least 2/3 of the costs. Since billing of health insurance companies has not begun, the total cost would be carried the Willsboro and Essex town general funds. This will mean a tax increase in excess of the 2% tax cap next year. Costs would increase in the following years because new ambulances, defibrillators, and hiring of professional EMT personnel would soon follow.
One alternative to this is formation of an ambulance district that would eventually be merged with an ambulance district in Essex to make a new two town ambulance district. This would be a new taxing district entity that would collect revenue to operate the EMS service for the town(s). If this was enacted by the town board it would be subject to permissive referendum. An ambulance district can bill insurance and can set taxing levels at different rates within the district, and separate from the general fund taxing rate.
On both issues, sewer and EMS, please let me know your thoughts, opinions, and ideas. It is vital that for both these issues we get the solutions right.
Thanks you for the opportunity to serve,