Blairsville officials discuss dye testing, merger study for water authority
According to Blairsville Borough Council President John Bertolino, a special meeting held July 31 between council and the Blairsville Municipal Authority board was meant to be a means for the two boards to communicate about specific matters concerning the borough.
“We just had questions and wanted to make sure we were all on the same page” in regards to a letter to be sent to residents failing dye tests, as well as updates being made to the water treatment plant, Bertolino said.
The discussion eventually led to a suggestion that the BMA be absorbed into Highridge Water Authority, and the borough agreed to seek funding to conduct a feasibility study on the matter.
The dye testing was put on hold until a satisfactory letter to residents has been agreed upon. A draft of the letter mentions a recommended 10-foot downspout to draw water away from the foundations of homes.
Bertolino expressed his concern that all homes may not be able to comply with that.
BMA Executive Director Ron Hood said the 10-foot recommendation came from talks with the authority's engineers, who felt it would provide an adequate distance to slow down the water flow to footer drains in an attempt to manage peak flows.
According to BMA board member Michael Ritts, the water-testing requirements stem from issues about a year ago of flooding basements in the area of Martha Street. Homeowners wrote complaints to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which in turn instructed BMA to take action regarding the flooding issues.
Ritts said the BMA is taking a “multi-pronged approach” to the issue, already replacing a manhole and taking other actions to remove water from the sewers, including the downspout recommendations. He said many of the downspouts in town are still connected to the sanitary sewers, directing flows to the wastewater plant. Because such water doesn't require treatment, yet is still entering the plant, it's a waste of chemicals and manpower.
“We are in accordance with the DEP trying to take several steps in order to reduce the flow of water that goes to the wastewater plant, and storm sewers is one that we started with,” Ritts said.
The DEP has also said it wants every residence tested in the borough over the next several years, Ritts said, “which is a pretty big task.”
The BMA board and borough council agreed to add more options to the letter being sent to residents, which may include rain barrels, directing downspounts to a dry well — a hole dug and filled with rocks — and roll-out diffusers that can temporarily extend a downspout during times of rain.
“If there's a storm sewer available, obviously, we'd like to tie into that,” Hood said, noting he's aware that storm sewers are not available in all of Blairsville.
Terry DiBiase, chairman of the authority board, said the BMA is willing to work with those residences that are in violation: “We'll work with them, we can discuss different options. And maybe somebody comes up with a better option.”
Hood said the BMA is paying for the dye tests, but any work that must be done as a result of those tests, in order to come into compliance, will fall to the homeowner.
Door hangers, mailings and an automated phone system are all being used to alert homeowners at least 24 hours prior to the BMA conducting the dye tests, Hood said.
Only a small portion of the dye testing has already been completed on about 180 homes, including some residences located on Morewood Avenue and across to Miller Drive, according to Hood.
Up next will be the lower end of town near the Little League field, then Penn Drive and Burrell extension.
Bertolino also asked for an update on the proposed upgrades to the water treatment plant. The last upgrade occurred in 1989. The BMA has already applied for funding in the amount of $3,313,000 for the project.
The amount needed for the upgrades, which DiBiase said may cause a water rate increase within the next few years, spurred debate on whether or not the borough would be better off joining the larger Highridge Water Authority.
“Have you ever thought about giving up the water and sitting down at a table with Highridge, and giving up the water plant so we can save money, and put people on the board with Highridge, instead of trying to be a small community” that is going to have high water bills, asked council member Carolyn Smith.
She said Blairsville is a smaller community with a large majority of its members being elderly and on a fixed budget.
“You have Highridge, who runs right through us. If we go to them, sell them everything we have, and get on their board and help run the place, we'd be better off,” she said.
Several members of the BMA pointed out that Highridge's rates are much higher than BMA's.
Blairsville councilman Ron Evanko suggested that a feasibility study be conducted, to assess the pros and cons of joining Highridge.
“I feel that we owe it to our residents to at least do a feasibility study,” Evanko said. “Not to commit to anything, but to say we did the study, we ran the numbers, this is the result of it, and no, it's not feasible.”
Hood pointed out that the borough might be able to seat two people on the Highridge board out of 14 members. “You won't get a majority vote,” he said.
“At least you'd have a word to say,” Smith said.
Evanko suggested petitioning a local senator or state representative to cover the cost of the study, which would be conducted by an outside party.
George Sulkosky, executive director of the Highridge Water Authority, indicated in a later phone interview that Highridge officials would be willing to discuss a proposed union with BMA.
Ritts likened the BMA to the borough's refuse service. “We like to think that our employees can do a better job in keeping our town clean than if we hire out to Waste Management,” he said. “I think the water's the same way. We like to think that we can do a better job and keep a closer eye on the expenses as far as running a tight and a good water service.”
But Ritts did say that a non-binding feasibility study would not be a bad idea.
Evanko said if the money for the study can be obtained through the state, the study could clear up any questions about whether or not Highridge would be a better water service for the borough.
Borough council made a motion to write and distribute letters asking for financial assistance for such a study, which passed unanimously.
“If we don't get the money, we don't do the study,” Evanko remarked.
Because Sept. 17 is the anticipated award date for grant funding for planned water plant updates, the time table for the feasibility study is very narrow, it was pointed out.
Borough council also took time at the beginning of the meeting to take care of a few business matters, including the hiring of two new employees.
Brock Harsh and Cody Crawford were both hired as full-time general laborers, pending the completion of satisfactory background checks.
Council also accepted the resignation of Nancy Bonarrigo, an administrative assistant for the borough, effective Aug. 2. Council members thanked her for her service.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.