State: Shawangunk overcharging on sewer rates

By Ted Remsnyder
Posted 12/11/19

A report issued on Nov. 22 by the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli contends that the Town of Shawangunk charged sewer district users higher rates than was necessary. According to …

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State: Shawangunk overcharging on sewer rates

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A report issued on Nov. 22 by the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli contends that the Town of Shawangunk charged sewer district users higher rates than was necessary. According to the state’s audit of the town’s 2018 sewer district charges, “District users, including outside users, paid $2.1 million more than the total expenditures. Charges to DOCCS (New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision) alone exceeded expenditures by $1.4 million.”

The audit also determined that the town “did not have a written agreement or basis for rates charged to DOCCS for sewer services.” According to the report’s key findings, Shawangunk had an excessive fund balance of $4.4 million as of the end of 2017, which according to the state is a balance in excess of 844 percent of the district’s average annual expenditures.

The town has 90 days to craft an action plan to deal with the state’s findings. After the Town Board’s meeting on Dec. 5, Town Supervisor John Valk said the municipality disagreed with some of the state’s findings. “They make it sound as if we were just accumulating money,” he said. “We do have plans for the money with these upgrades. It’s something we can’t mess around with environmentally, having the sewage go into the river. With all of the things we do, the roads can have potholes, the police can be busy, but we can’t let that sewage go in the river. The DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) is very strict and they could fine us. So we are making upgrades as they’re needed. The latest thing we’re doing is the agitation ditch, and there are two sets of rollers that are $50,000 apiece. They have to be replaced because one broke and we’re just relying on one now. But we disagree with the idea that we did this with no basis. It was well thought out and this board was aware of it. When the auditor came in, the first thing I said was ‘You will find this and these are the reasons.’ The reason we didn’t pay those bonds off earlier is that it was a 10-year period before you could call the bonds. So that’s why we accumulated the money, to pay those off for the last upgrades.”

Valk explained to the public during Thursday’s meeting that the issues with the sewer plant date back two decades. “Some of the stuff in there we responded and disagreed with,” he said of the audit. “The reason this all started was 21 years ago, we tried to negotiate a contract with the Department of Corrections because they used too much capacity in our sewer plant and weren’t paying for it. So in that 21 years, we were unsuccessful in negotiating a contract. It’s been on their desk and they don’t get back to you and years go by. So we were told by some unknown person to raise the fees to operate our plant, to get our capacity back. Which we did. It accumulated a fund balance, which in the meantime we paid off our bonds last month. We’re making some major upgrades right now. We’ll probably spend $400-500,000. Even though they say we have a large fund balance, in 1999 the Town Board created a reserve fund, and I checked with the bookkeeper and there was $500,000 in that reserve fund of this fund balance.”

Valk noted during the meeting that the town has a plan going forward to deal with the state’s issues. “We have to do a correction plan within 90 days, and as part of that correction plan I believe we should put a substantial amount of money in this fund,” he told the board. “Because these upgrades we’re doing right now, if we had to charge the taxpayers, our sewer rates would skyrocket. So this would be a protection. This is the whole purpose, that we can comply with the DEC and maintain a quality sewer plant.”

The town will follow the state’s recommendations laid out in the report. “We may need another upgrade, because with 400 residents using it, it’s not enough money to pay for major upgrades without grants,” Valk said. “But maybe we’re wrong and they’ll slap our wrist. But we will correct it and comply.”

Shawangunk will work over the next three months to craft an action plan to deal with the state’s findings. “Part of that is that we paid off the bonds, and the other part is that we’re reaching out to Corrections to renegotiate that contract,” Valk explained to the public. “We’ll also put money in the reserve for the repairs we’re making now. Come budget time next year, we’ll adjust the rates.”

Comprehensive plan

The board opened a public hearing on the town’s recently refreshed comprehensive plan during last week’s meeting. The process began last year to update the comp plan for the first time since 2003, and Town Planner Bonnie Franson laid out the procedure and results of the effort during a presentation during Thursday’s session.

On Jan. 26, a pair of public workshops were held at Town Hall and in Walker Valley to solicit residents’ vision on the future of the town. In conjunction with feedback the town solicited online, the Shawangunk Comprehensive Plan Committee, which consisted of Valk, Councilman Robert Miller, Shawangunk Planning Board Chair Mark Watkins, Richard Barnhart, Roger Rascoe, Arif Khan and Richard Hoyt went about drafting a plan that could lead to potential zoning changes down the line that could attract new business and residential developments to the municipality.

The plan’s vision for the hamlet of Wallkill calls for celebrating the Wallkill River, while revitalizing the hamlet gateways and creating a destination main street for Wallkill. The plan for Walker Valley is to protect the scenic character of NYS Route 52, a State Designated Scenic Byway, while also creating zoning that strengthens the economy along Route 52 and expanding utility and transportation infrastructure to serve the Route 52 corridor.

The aspirational plan includes big goals like establishing a riverfront walk along the Wallkill River that would connect a park to theoretical businesses including a farmer’s market and thriving cafes and restaurants, as the town is setting an ambitious series of goals it hopes it can meet over a 10-year period. “You don’t always reach all of your goals, but you have a wishlist,” Valk said. “That’s what the comp plan is. What we should do is go back more often and look at it and say ‘Ok, we’re headed in the wrong direction, so let’s go this way.’ But 17 years is too long between plans. It is ambitious, but looking back at the other one, we did reach a lot of those goals. Some of them take years, but we do our best.”

The public hearing on the comprehensive plan will remain open until the board’s next meeting on Dec. 19 as the council awaits input from the Ulster County Planning Board.

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