Orleans supervisor to Russell: Get facts straight on water project

Town Supervisor Kevin R. Rarick stands outside the state Department of Transportation’s salt-storage barn on Route 12 in Collins Landing. Town officials say a funding gap of about $2.3 million in grant funding needs to be filled to break ground on a $12.3 million project, which is needed to address widespread groundwater contamination reportedly caused by the storage barn. Photo by Stephen Swofford, Watertown Daily Times.

Town Supervisor Kevin R. Rarick stands outside the state Department of Transportation’s salt-storage barn on Route 12 in Collins Landing. Town officials say a funding gap of about $2.3 million in grant funding needs to be filled to break ground on a $12.3 million project, which is needed to address widespread groundwater contamination reportedly caused by the storage barn. Photo by Stephen Swofford, Watertown Daily Times.

COLLINS LANDING — Though state Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell has complained the “goal post keeps moving” on the cost of an Orleans water project to address salt contamination, the town supervisor says the legislator hasn’t taken the time to understand the facts.

The disconnect between Mrs. Russell, D-Theresa, and town Supervisor Kevin R. Rarick comes as frustration among town officials has increased over the inability of north country legislators to help secure enough grant funding to make the project affordable. To meet the state comptroller’s requirements for the water district formed in 2014, users cannot pay more than $805 per equivalent dwelling unit annually in water costs for the project, which would serve 503 users on and near Route 12 between Alexandria Bay and Fishers Landing.

Town officials say a funding gap of about $2.3 million in grant funding — not loans — needs to be filled to break ground on the $12.3-million project, which is needed to address groundwater contamination reportedly caused by the state Department of Transportation’s salt-storage barn on Route 12 in Collins Landing. The project was originally expected to cost $11.8 million when the water district was formed, but the cost has climbed to $12.3 million due to a projected increase in construction costs.

Mr. Rarick is among town officials and residents who believe the DOT should take ownership of the contamination problem and cover the funding gap.

Getting facts straight

On Friday, Mrs. Russell claimed that Mr. Rarick’s recent complaints about legislators’ efforts to secure funding — made during a town board meeting last week — don’t mesh with the facts about how much funding has been received.

“More than $11.9 million was committed within nine months of forming the district in the winter of 2014. But the goal post keeps moving and it makes it that much more challenging to go back and advocate for funds, especially when there is no justification from the town,” she said, adding that she’s scheduled a meeting with Mr. Rarick.

An investigation by the Times revealed that while town officials and Mrs. Russell agree on various funding sources committed for the project, the legislator’s understanding of the funding plan is flawed.

Mrs. Russell pointed out that along with the commitment of three state grants collectively totaling $1.1 million, Orleans secured a 30-year, no-interest loan of up to $11,395,000 from the state Environmental Facilities Corp. in 2014. But while the town could theoretically use that loan funding to cover the whole cost of the project, doing so would make the annual user cost too expensive. That should not have come as a surprise to Mrs. Russell, Mr. Rarick said.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve stated that we can’t use the complete $11.4-million loan without going over the state comptroller’s rate,” he said Monday, adding that he hasn’t met with Mrs. Russell in person since November 2014. “She doesn’t take enough time to fully understand the problem. … I don’t think she wants to get her hands dirty and only wants to do the feel-good stuff.”

Of the $11.4-million interest-free loan, Mr. Rarick said, only $8.4 million can go toward the project for the town to make it affordable enough for residents, based on a per-user cost of $800 per year for 30 years. Numbers provided by the town show an additional $2.3 million in grant funding is needed to hit that mark. In addition to grants already secured, that figure is based on an anticipated $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development.

The district was formed under an agreement with the state comptroller’s office that the cost can’t exceed $805 annually per user. For the town to exceed that amount, he said, a special referendum would be needed for the district to be re-formed. The move would require approval from the majority of district users in a survey or petition, along with approval from the state comptroller’s office.

If no-interest loan funding were used to cover the $2.3-million gap, Mr. Rarick said, the annual per-user cost would be $950. But he contended users would be unwilling to pay more than the $800 per year that was originally agreed upon.

“How are you going to go $150 higher than what you told them in 2014?” he said. “And if we do that, the DOT isn’t going to come back later and say, ‘here is $2 million or $4 million for the salt-contamination problem.’”

‘Gag order’

Mr. Rarick added that he suspects an “internal gag order” has compelled Mrs. Russell and DOT officials to avoid discussing the salt-contamination problem. A 2013 study by the town’s engineering firm, Fourth Coast Inc. of Clayton, found about 50 private wells surrounding the DOT facility had high levels of contaminants, such as sodium, chlorides, lead, iron and magnesium.

“Either stand up for what’s right, or get out of the position if you’re too worried about being politically correct and don’t want to mess with the big taboo of the DOT,” Mr. Rarick said. “If the DOT gave us enough money originally, we wouldn’t be in this situation because everyone would have had water two years ago. But the frustration has gone up higher and higher now, and everyone wants the DOT to step up and fix the problem.”

For her part, Mrs. Russell said that while she has “strong suspicions” that the DOT’s salt barn has been the cause of the contamination problem, “I’m not a scientist, and that’s one of the reasons I have worked so hard to line up this funding.”

Mrs. Russell said that while the town could try to hold the DOT accountable for the salt contamination problem, it’s not an issue she can address.

“I can’t sue the DOT on behalf of the town for contaminating their water,” she said. “If the town feels they have a lawsuit against the DOT, they would be the proper entity to sue the DOT.”

Philip N. Reed, a Jefferson County legislator for District 3 representing the towns of Orleans, Alexandria and LeRay, has experienced water problems firsthand at his home near the DOT facility on Seaway Avenue. He said he believes elected officials should make holding the DOT accountable a priority.

“Everybody in the government should be on this issue,” Mr. Reed said. “This isn’t our problem, it’s the state’s. The burden of proof isn’t on us.”

Loose ends

Project plans, meanwhile, continue to be ironed out by state agencies.

The state Department of Health, which is still reviewing the town’s engineering report, has recently begun discussions about a possible expansion of the water district, according to Robert J. Campany, town engineer. He said the DOH wants the town to consider extending the water line from the intersection of Routes 12 and 180 about a half-mile west on Route 12 to the Clayton town line. Doing so would encompass about 50 users, including about 30 on Farrell Drive north of Route 12. The extension would add about $600,000 to the project cost, and it remains to be seen whether users could cover the expense.

The DOH also wants the town to build an elevated storage tank more than 100 feet tall that would store up to about 300,000 gallons of water, Mr. Campany said. The tank could likely be located on land the town owns at the intersection of Route 12 and Seaway Avenue.

The town, which is concerned about potential freezing of such a tank during the winter, has instead suggested building a low-rise storage tank that would be partially underground to prevent freezing, Mr. Campany said. In contrast to the elevated tank, water pressure would be provided by a pump station. He said the aesthetics of an elevated tank are also a concern.

By the numbers

The following grants are expected to help finance a $12.3-million water project planned by the town of Orleans.

$500,000 from Empire State Development

$100,000 from Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (from office of state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton)

$500,000 from Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (from office of state Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa)

Anticipated $500,000 grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development

By Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times