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Cape Vincent water formula follows state, federal guidelines

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CAPE VINCENT — A citizens committee criticized a water rate formula approved by the town based on equivalent dwelling units, or EDUs.

Yet, municipalities cannot apply for state or federal grant funding unless EDUs are calculated, according to a Development Authority of the North Country official.

The Town Council revised the water rate formula May 1 for users in Water Districts 2 and 3, correcting an old formula that charged some users too much and others less than their fair share. Under the formula starting this month, users will be charged based on EDUs, calculated based on water consumption. One EDU equals 150 gallons per day.

DANC uses the EDU units to calculate how much District 2 and 3 users pay for operation and maintenance costs for access to the DANC’s regional waterline. Water bills will continue to be based on metered water usage.

The formula was approved despite a proposal from a six-member citizens committee that opposed it at a May 1 public hearing. Committee members assert that three active users in Water District 2 are being charged too much for operation and maintenance fees by DANC, which accounts for about half of their bills.

But that argument appears to be flawed, said DANC Director of Engineering Carrie M. Tuttle. That’s because municipalities must calculate EDUs for water districts in order to apply for state or federal grant funding. She said municipalities that apply for funding through the state Environmental Facilities Corp. or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office must specify the number of EDUs assigned to water district users.

“If a community wants to build a new water system, they’re going to hire an engineer who is going to calculate the number of EDUs that are going to be served by the water district,” Ms. Tuttle said. “Based on the median household income of a town or village, they will find out how much they can afford to pay per EDU. It’s all based on EDUs. It really comes down to equality, because if one location is using 10 times what a single-family home is using but are only paying for one EDU, then those other single-family homes are subsidizing it.”

A spokesman from the state comptroller’s office confirmed Tuesday that municipalities must comply with those requirements from grant agencies.

Town Engineer Matthew J. Cooper of Bernier, Carr & Associates, Watertown, helped the town develop its water formula for Districts 2 and 3. At a special water meeting March 25, he said that assigning EDUs for users is a commonly accepted standard across the state for planning new water districts.

“We have simply applied that method to existing Districts 2 and 3 to cover the fixed costs associated with DANC’s bill to be done on an EDU basis,” he said at the March meeting. “That’s a method that’s used throughout New York state, water districts locally and statewide. And it’s a defendable method, even though there are other ways to skin the cat.”

The town bases its revised formula on the DANC water bill. Although District 3 users have received water from the town — rather than DANC — since 2008, they continue to pay operation charges to DANC for their access to its waterline as a backup water source. The line runs about 20 miles from Cape Vincent to Brownville.

Darrel J. Aubertine, who works for the state comptroller as special assistant for external affairs, is a user in Water District 2, where he connects to the waterline off Hell Street. His son, Paul F. Aubertine, was the only board member to vote against the revised water formula, saying he supports the citizens committee’s recommendations.

In 2012 the town commissioned a study by Fourth Coast Inc., Clayton, which showed that Darrel Aubertine has seven additional outside connections to users in the district. The connections were formed in 1997. Mr. Aubertine refused to allow Fourth Coast engineers onto his property during the study.

The state Department of Health is concerned about contamination by the unregulated district. The department sent the town a letter last month urging expansion of the district to include outside users — in effect taking over the privately managed district. The letter suggested that a backflow-prevention device may be needed to make sure unregulated connections do not cause downstream contamination. Such an outcome could affect water users in the towns of Lyme and Brownville.

The town is investigating Water District 2 to see if outside users are being charged fairly for water, and whether unregulated connections could contaminate DANC’s regional waterline.

The town’s previous formula had District 2 users being charged the same as those in District 3. The DANC water bill was divided evenly between the two districts. This meant that 35 single-family homeowners in District 3 paid the same for operation charges as users in District 2. The new formula corrects this disparity by ensuring that large water consumers pay more for operation charges, Councilman John L. Byrne III said.

“There was a big disconnect between the amount of water they were using and what they were being charged,” Mr. Byrne said. “In essence, what you had going on was all of the single-family homes were subsidizing a lot of the large water users. And this has been going on since the water districts were formed. You had these large water users, including dairy farms, that were only being charged one EDU when they were going through thousands and thousands of gallons of water. And the real cost is not the water but the cost for DANC to maintain the infrastructure. Putting the regional pipe in was very costly.”

The largest consumer in Water District 2 is Wesley A. Bourcy, who operates a dairy farm at 4224 Branche Road. Given Mr. Bourcy’s 2013 water use, the town will bill him based on 64 EDUs. Mr. Bourcy, who also has two connections to outside users, was billed for 4,875,000 gallons in 2013, an average of 13,356 gallons per day. Darrel Aubertine’s water connection accounted for 1,262,000 gallons in 2013, an average of 3,458 gallons per day. The town assigned 23 EDUs for his property.

The town will investigate whether dairy farms in other water districts are paying their fair share for water costs, Mr. Byrne said. He said the board will probe all businesses in the town’s water districts — including dairy farms — so that their EDUs reflect how much water they use.

The largest dairy farm in the town is Woods Farm, located off County Route 9 in Water District 5, Mr. Byrne said. But the 950-cow farm, co-owned by Lyle J. Wood and Scott F. Bourcy, is still assessed as just one EDU.

“It’s the biggest farm in Cape Vincent, and probably one of the larger ones in Jefferson County,” Mr. Byrne said. “And on top of water being fed to the farm, behind the barn they have two or three mobile homes, where migrant workers live on the farm, that are being fed water.”

Supervisor Urban C. Hirschey did not respond to a call Wednesday seeking comment.

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