Pittsfield to vote on water district Saturday

  • The entrance to the Berry Pond reservoir off Route 107 in Pittsfield is shown. Residents will vote on whether to form a water district in Pittsfield on Saturday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Friday, December 15, 2017

Pittsfield residents will decide Saturday whether to create a public water district for the town.

A group of residents want to buy the quasi-private Pittsfield Aqueduct Company to create a locally controlled operation. Most of the town is on well water, but a little over 600 customers in the downtown area, including municipal buildings, are served by the aqueduct company, a subsidiary of Pennichuck, a publicly held corporation whose sole shareholder is the city of Nashua.

“Any town that wants to promote economic development should be masters of their own water systems,” said Fred Okrent, a member of the Aqueduct Purchase Committee.

Many in town – including four out of five select board members – are vehemently opposed to the plan.

“I am opposed to this and the reason is quite simple: cost and future headaches,” Chairman Jim Allard said.

Pennichuck purchased the Pittsfield Aqueduct Co. – then an independent, private company – in 1998, and Nashua became Pennichuck’s owner in 2012. The town of Pittsfield, Allard said, has “no history in the water business” and doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle the maintenance, billing and water-quality monitoring responsibilities involved.

“We would have to create the water district but also the whole system out of whole cloth – that’s a lot for basically a 4,000-person town,” he said.

Proponents of municipalizing the water company also bill the plan as a conservation matter. The Pittsfield Aqueduct company owns forested land around the Berry Pond watershed, and they say buying the company is the only way to guarantee the land is never built on.

But Allard said the select board had inquired with regulators about the possibility of the land being sold to developers, and was told the chance of that happening was essentially nil.

“We checked with the state, specifically the Department of Environmental Services, and land around a public water source cannot be developed – or development is strictly regulated. And so I personally have no fear that the land is about to be gobbled up,” Allard said.

The select board has voted to align the proposed water district’s borders with the town’s. That means all town residents, not just the company’s customers, would be part of the district and have a vote Saturday.

Okrent called the decision a “poison pill” because it puts the entire town on the hook, financially, for the district. Allard said the majority of the select board thought the wider town was owed a voice because taxpayers foot the water bill for the schools, fire hydrants and town hall, which are served by the water company.

“We thought we were opening it up to a wider debate, instead of having fewer people inflict this on the entire community,” he said.

Larry Goodhue, CEO of Pennichuck, said the company would entertain a sale of its Pittsfield subsidiary, which accounts for about 2 percent to 5 percent of Pennichuck’s total revenues.

“If they come to us with a bona fide offer for it’s true and fair value, that’s something that we would have to consider,” he said.

Goodhue declined to say how much he thought the company was worth, saying the price would be a matter of negotiation.

Gerard LeDuc, a selectman who supports purchasing the company, estimated it would cost anywhere between $3 million and $5 million to buy it.

Any sale would have to be approved by multiple players, Goodhue said, including Pennichuck’s board of directors, Nashua’s board of aldermen, state regulators and the company’s creditors.

The special town meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. at Pittsfield Elementary School, located at 34 Bow St.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)