Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tough decision ahead for Clinton

The details of Nestle's proposed deal with Clinton have been clarified, and now the onus is back on Clinton's selectmen to determine their next move. Here are the clarified details, from the Item:
In Clinton, the organization is offering to pay the town’s current rate for untreated and undelivered water: $2.55 per 100 cubic feet. Clinton could potentially garner $200,000 to $300,000 annually based upon state mandated withdrawal volumes. Nestlé would also chip in another $200,000 for dam repairs.

Nothing is written in stone for Sterling as of yet, but Nestlé proposed to enter into a contractual agreement with the town concerning the project and additional annual payments to be made to the Town of Sterling.
As previously reported, the $200,000 for dam repairs would be split with an initial payment of $100,000 and five annual payments of $20,000 to follow.

I don't know what Clinton was expecting, but that doesn't seem like very much money to me. $300,000 annually is less than one percent of Clinton's entire budget, and equivalent to about two percent of their entire property tax base. So if Clinton were to use that money as a straight offset to property taxes, the average homeowner would save $65 each year. Or to put it another way, Nestle's payments to the town would just about pay the annual budget of the Bigelow Library.

Every little bit helps, but I expected Clinton to come out of this with more than that.

The proposal for $200,000 over six years for dam repairs seems particularly meager, since it's been widely reported that the repairs will cost around $1.5 million. Regardless of how much Nestle pays, Clinton is going to be on the hook for the repairs one way or the other. If they took Nestle's money from the repair fund and the money from the yearly water payments, it will still take them five years to raise the funds to fix the dams.

To put Nestle's proposal into perspective, Nestle would be paying 3/10 of one cent per gallon of water. So when you head to Hannaford to spend $4.99 for a case of Poland Springs water, the water in that entire case would have cost Nestle $0.01 (They're obviously paying for purifying, bottling, etc. on top of that, but still, that's a pretty hefty margin).

So what is Clinton to do? I would be surprised if the Selectmen accept the RFP as it is written, but I don't know what they are expecting. If they don't accept it, will they counter with their own proposal? Will they ask Nestle to go back to the drawing board and see if they can squeeze a few more pennies out of their purse? Will they just scrap the whole idea and find something else to do with the property? And what will they do about the Conservation Restriction that was passed in 2004, which is still waiting to be signed and is required if the town wants state money to buy the Rauscher Farm?

Clinton can't just do nothing with the Wekepeke. If they just let the dams go and one of them were to fail, Clinton will be on the hook for the liability, and that could very well be more than the $1.5 million it would cost to repair them. They could sell the land back to Sterling, but the status of the dams would be part of any deal: if the dams weren't repaired before such a sale, you can bet Sterling would want a $1.5 million discount since they would be on the hook for the repairs and the liability. Besides, the chances of Sterling passing an override to purchase the land is very slim.

One option that was discussed briefly at the Sterling meeting last week was to demolish the dams altogether and restore the Wekepeke Brook to it's natural path and flow. That idea was mentioned by a representative from the Nashua River Watershed Association as one possible solution that the NRWA would support. What would something like that cost? Would it be significantly cheaper than the $1.5 million to repair the dams? (I suppose you could strap some dynamite to the dam and that would be a lot cheaper, but the dams would probably have to be dismantled in an orderly fashion) And what sort of opposition would that engender from Lancaster? Without the dams upstream, the brook would flow unfettered to Bartlett Pond at the base of Ballard Hill. As it is, the pond overflows and shuts down route 117 once a year or so. What would the impact be if the old mill at Bartlett Pond were the brook's first choke point?

But before we get that far, politics may render the whole discussion moot. At the Sterling meeting, State Rep. Harold Naughton spoke very carefully about Clinton's upcoming elections, but left the impression that the future of the Nestle proposal could be affected by the May election for two seats on the Board of Selectmen. He did not say exactly what the effect would be, but I inferred that if there were turnover on the board, the whole project could be in jeopardy. It seems to me that nearly every decision the Clinton board makes is a 3-2 decision, so I surmised that if one of the two incumbents were to lose, the 3-2 decisions might start going the other way. And if that's the case, will it prompt the board to try to act before the election, in order to lock in a decision on the Wekepeke's future?

I don't know, but now that Clinton has heard what Nestle is proposing, it seems to me that the project is farther from reality today than it was last week.

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