PITTSFIELD – After water mains exploded in downtown Pittsfield last week, resulting in a townwide loss of water, residents are asking their councilors how the town’s infrastructure was left neglected for decades.
In just the past few weeks:
? The town-owned theater was closed last month because the roof is unsafe. A temporary repair is being considered.
? An engineer estimated that the cost of removing sludge from the town’s sewer treatment plant lagoons, a project 15 years overdue, could cost a million dollars.
? Another engineering report indicated that 70 percent of the town’s sewer system is failing, leaking or near the end of its life.
“I understand people’s nervousness surrounding our infrastructure,” Mayor Tim Nichols said this weekend. Nichols said that current Town Manager Kathryn Ruth, who has been in the position for six years, inherited a crumbling infrastructure and that major maintenance or long-range repairs has not been done in decades.
But, he said, “We should have seen this coming.”
Ruth said Sunday that the town’s infrastructure is antique. The waterworks has been in business since 1891; the sewer system was put in place in the 1890s.
“When parts of any infrastructure are over 100 years old – or even over 50 years old – there are going to be issues and breakdowns,” Ruth said, adding that the bottom line is money. “The town simply does not have the millions of dollars needed to upgrade both systems. Unless we can obtain grant funding, massive infrastructure upgrades to a 50- to 100-year-old system will not take place.”
Nichols said that in recent months Ruth and the council, aware of the depth of the infrastructure problems, had begun to put things in place to come up with a long-range plan. The council has hired engineers to study the lagoon and sewer problems and has been reviewing future actions and options.
“There is no sense pointing fingers,” Nichols said. “We just need to get the [repairs] done. Everybody has to take a little bit of the blame. I’ve been a councilor for 11 years, and I probably should have done something myself.”
Councilor Donna Chale said that what Pittsfield needs now is balance and a long-range commitment.
“Living in Pittsfield is a privilege,” she said. “How many towns of 4,000 people can boast a public pool, public theater, five public parks – most with access to the water – an excellent transfer station and a ski area in addition to the public library, fire station, police station and municipal office that most towns have? Our town also boasts a hospital and golf course. We are extremely fortunate to have access to all these amenities. ”
But along with these privileges come responsibilities for maintenance, Chale said.
“We have been extremely fortunate that our town manager has been successful in obtaining grants that have helped us with our financial burdens, but we need to face the fact that our taxpayers may need to pay more if they want to enjoy these amenities,” Chale said.
Chale said that what Pittsfield needs now is sensible financing that looks forward not to a “wish list” of future capital projects, but to a comprehensive, fully funded plan for improvements.
“Just as everyone has to set aside money to maintain their cars and homes, our town also must raise funds to prepare for maintenance and unexpected repairs,” she said. “It is important that we have the resources to consider all options when faced with a problem so that we are able to select the best answer, not just the least-expensive one.”
Ruth said that when she became manager, the Town Council’s aim was to lower taxes. “This was done for several years until the new county jail project forced a huge increase in county assessments and, in turn, raised property taxes throughout Somerset County,” she said. “In the 1990s and early 2000s, cutting taxes in Pittsfield had been accomplished by being extremely frugal, going without items that would benefit the town and cutting staff.
“We are still frugal,” Ruth said, adding that the town has been fortunate to have the infusion of millions of dollars in grant funds.
Because the major repairs and renovations to the theater and water and sewer systems will not be funded through grants or donations, “We are entering a new period of looking for funding, and that will be even more challenging than the last five years,” Ruth said.