March 11, 2019 by Carol Britton Meyer
Hingham voters have six weeks to make up their minds about whether or not to support the Selectmen's proposal to purchase the Aquarion Water Company system serving Hingham, Hull, and part of Cohasset.
The first Selectmen-hosted informational session March 9 was well-attended -- despite the mild, sunny weather and the fact that it was a Saturday afternoon -- attracting dozens of Hingham citizens as well as some Hull and Weymouth residents who wanted to hear more details, ask questions, or express concerns.
"This is part of an ongoing effort leading up to Town Meeting to educate citizens with respect to this important issue," Selectmen Chairman Paul Healey said. "This is a matter of generational importance. This vote will affect not only us today but also our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who live here in town."
During the 2-1/2-hour meeting, the Selectmen presented what they consider to be the main reasons purchasing the system makes sense, followed by questions from the audience. Among all the information, support, and concerns that were shared, the overriding tenor was that the Selectmen are listening.
With regard to concerns voiced by Hingham and Hull residents and Advisory Committee Water Company Sub-committee member Libby Claypoole in the past and during this session related to the lack of an intermunicipal agreement among the three towns, Selectman Karen Johnson had this to say:
"As a legal matter, Hingham has the right to buy and operate the system, which includes providing direct water to [Hull and Cohasset]. The question is, how should that be memorialized?"
While she said Hingham has no legal obligation to have a contract with the two towns, after further thought a written assurance will be provided regarding rates, emergency water, and other issues.
"Ratepayers are our first priority," Johnson said. "We will only charge what it costs to run the system" with no shareholders to consider and allowing enough money to cover the cost of infrastructure work.
Johnson also thanked Hingham resident Richard Norman, who has been asking questions, expressing concerns, and making suggestions throughout the process, for his continuing input. Norman was also present at Saturday's meeting saying that he has now reached "the 10-yard line" in that while there are still some unresolved issues in his mind, he is moving toward supporting the purchase.
"I'm impressed with today's presentation," Norman said. "The Board of Selectmen has been responsive."
He noted that while he doesn't think the Selectmen should continue in the role of water commissioners, he believes they should be in that role for the time being if the acquisition moves forward.
"In the longer term there needs to be the assurance of technical knowledge and an understanding of the nitty-gritty details of operating a water company," Norman said.
Johnson told Norman, "We appreciate you challenging us to do better. We're listening."
The estimated purchase price, not counting associated costs, is about $108 million. There's a projected savings of $50 million over 30 years and an expected annual $7.4 million savings per year once the "mortgage is paid off" in that timeframe. A key point, supporters say, is that Hingham’s bond consultant has confirmed that such a purchase would not affect Hingham's AAA bond rating.
"Revenues collected will pay all the operating costs, including the debt service on the acquisition," Selectman Mary Power said. "Purchasing the water company wouldn't compete with projects such as Foster School, and the water company debt wouldn't 'count' against the town's debt limit." She further noted, "We are the only privately-owned water system of our size in Massachusetts."
Power said while the Selectmen would serves as water commissioners from "Day 1" due to the knowledge they've gained from several years of considering a possible acquisition, "there are a number of different governance structures we could look at in the future.
"We'd be starting with a clean slate. This would be an opportunity to evaluate all the options," Power said. "Town Meeting would make the [final decision]."
Sewer Commissioner Kirk Shilts said there is a cost and also a "fear" component involved with this issue. "It appears that it would be cheaper to run the system ourselves, but then we ask, "How do we deal with our [Hull and Cohasset] neighbors -- how do they get a fair shake?" plus concerns about the environment, including protection of the aquifer.
He and Healey both noted that the town has a history of working together cooperatively with Hull and Cohasset on sewer, this summer's road "diet," and regional dispatch center-related issues.
Power said buying the water company will provide greater accountability and the ability to address concerns at the local level.
Guilford Road resident Henry Hidell thinks the town should make the purchase in the face of climate change among other reasons. "You can't wage war and you can't wage peace without water," he said. "The town cannot afford to 'offer up' its sole-source aquifer to a private company during these times."
Weymouth resident Darren Dearth, with family members who live and work in Hingham, expressed concern about the 15 Hingham residents currently employed at the water treatment plant in town who could lose their benefits if the purchase goes through.
"We're not looking to kick them under the bus," Healey said. "I know some of those guys. I hear you, and we're working on it."
He was referring to the fact that the town will give preference to water operators responding to a future Request for Proposals who are willing to hire current Aquarion employees.
"We stand by that," Power said. "I know there's been a lot of anxiety over the past several years about this issue. We hope current employees will be willing to [stay with a town-owned water system]."
In wrapping up the meeting, Selectmen Chairman Paul Healey said he hopes voters will "embrace this effort. I'm really hoping citizens will have a better and clearer understanding of what we're trying to do after attending this meeting or watching it on cable TV.
"I'm doing this for my grandchildren and my grandchildren's children. I ask you to take the torch," Healey said.
Johnson encouraged Hingham citizens to attend Town Meeting. "This is the big one. You've got to show up!" she said. "Don't leave this decision to somebody else. The least we can do is to show up for a vote that will affect future generations," she said.
Efforts to convince Town Meeting voters to vote one way or the other are ramping up. Citizens for Hingham Water supports the acquisition while members of Keep Aquarion oppose the proposed purchase.
At the same time, Aquarion continues to host public forums to talk about its side of the story.
Town Meeting snapshot: The Hingham Selectmen earlier voted unanimously to place four warrant articles related to such an acquistion on the April 22 Town Meeting agenda. A two-thirds vote is required to approve the purchase. They relate to:
* the proposed acquisition;
*appointing the Hingham Selectmen as water commissioners, at least for the first year;
* establishing a (self-supporting) water system enterprise fund;
* appropriating money to cover transition costs if the proposed acquisition wins voter approval "to bring this [effort] over the finish line to where we want it to go," Johnson said.
What's next: The Sub-committee is expected to make its recommendation to the full Advisory Committee this week. The Advisory Committee is expected to make its recommendation, which will appear in the Town Meeting warrant, March 20. Check the Hingham town website for further meeting information at hingham-ma.gov as well as water company acquisition-related documents and financial models.
The Town of Hull will host the Hingham Selectmen Thursday, March 21, at Hull High School in the Exhibition Room to discuss the proposal.
This meeting and prior ones were recorded and may be viewed on the Hingham Harbor Media website at harbormedia.org.