Facing a water supplier switch

VAIL – The 40-plus families and more than 100 customers served by the privately owned Vail Water Association LLC have known for some time that owner Todd Templeton plans to shut the company down.

With Tyrone’s water system as the only possible replacement, the solution seems cut and dry.

But with design plans slow to come, funding not guaranteed and cooperation lacking between the township and borough, how and when Vail customers will get water when the time comes to switch remains unclear.

Out of compliance

Problems with Vail started several years ago, according to Jessica Sheets, GAI Consultants Inc. project manager and Snyder Township engineer, when the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new groundwater rules.

Those regulations put pressure on many small water systems, with its users and operators often unable to meet the burdensome requirements, including water testing, she said.

“DEP is cracking down on small systems, and small systems can’t survive,” she said. “It costs a lot of money to run these tests.”

DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said all community water systems are facing the same rules and regulations in order to protect public health, and most are able to meet them.

For the DEP’s 15-county south-central region, Kasianowitz said 97.5 percent of systems now comply with the rule; the remaining 2.5 percent either are working on coming into compliance or have shut down.

She said the state and EPA provide resources to small systems when needed, but “some water systems are simply not viable.”

Vail currently is out of compliance with a requirement that all systems kill 99.99 percent of viruses associated with fecal contamination.

An EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System report on the Vail system shows scores of other violations dating back to 2008, all of which have been resolved.

Most were for failing to monitor for excessive levels of synthetic and organic compounds manmade or naturally occurring substances but also for violating public-notice rules and not filing reports.

Kasianowitz said based on the reports, the system was not being monitored properly to keep up with health rules and protect users.

While things have improved, Sheets said, the more than three years spent out of compliance requires further testing and continues to be a burden on users. They’ve been under a boil-water advisory for months, she said.

Kasianowitz said while there are growing pains when new regulations go into effect, “If a system is too small to function properly and they can’t follow the requirements, perhaps it’s best for a business to close or transfer its business somewhere else.”

Deciding to sell

Templeton said he’s long called the family-owned spring that flows into Bald Eagle Creek a miracle.

“It’s some of the purest water, just wonderful water,” he said. But it’s also become a burden, with increasing monitoring and testing costs, prompting customers to agree in December to double their monthly bills from $20 to $40.

However, Templeton said his testing costs have seen a 1,500 percent hike from $300 to $4,800 yearly.

Coupled with rules he expects are “coming down the pike,” he said he made the tough decision to get out of the water business.

“We would have to charge too much money per customer to provide what needs to be provided,” he said. Once his system is shut down, “It will just be another spring on the hill.”

Hoping to allay concerns that Vail users might have their water supply prematurely discontinued, Templeton vowed that he wouldn’t stop service until a new provider is in place.

Finding a source

Tyrone is the only possible replacement, Snyder Township Chairman Charles Diehl said. Oakridge is the only other system that is feasible geographically, but it cannot accommodate the additional customers.

According to Borough Manager Phyllis Garhart, Vail customers began coming to Tyrone offices last year looking to obtain water service after Templeton sent a letter dated Aug. 4 telling them that “Vail Water Association will no longer be a public water supplier” beginning Oct. 31, 2012.

The letter advised customers to contact the borough water office, saying Tyrone had agreed to “[extend] their main lines to provide water for your residence” and that Tyrone would make arrangements to install curb boxes at their houses to control water flow through the new lines.

Templeton’s letter warned them that Oct. 30 “will come quickly” and not to delay.

“This [letter] is how we were notified,” Garhart said. But the borough hadn’t made an offer to extend its lines to provide water service to Vail.

Previously, Tyrone had paid an engineer to conduct a feasibility study on servicing the Vail area, Garhart said, and although it had never made an agreement, when Vail customers came forward in 2012, the borough began surveying in preparation for extending lines to some Vail customers.

That’s when the borough got a letter from Snyder officials telling Tyrone to stop. Supervisors feared if some customers switched on their own, the township might not receive grant money to connect all Vail homes to the Tyrone system.

At the time, many Vail water customers wanted to wait and see whether the township could get a grant to replace Vail’s water lines and hook onto the Tyrone system, said Vail customer Ray Stringer.

Vail’s lines put together piecemeal over the years “aren’t in good condition,” Sheets said. “There’s a lot of breaks,” she added, requiring that the lines be totally replaced.

The estimated cost to replace the lines and hook onto the Tyrone system tops $680,000, Sheets said.

Stringer said when he received Templeton’s letter about the planned shutdown, he considered drilling a well like eight of his neighbors did.

“The options were limited at that point,” he said.

Looking back, however, Stringer said he wonders whether some of his neighbors “jumped the gun,” as they will be forced to tap on to Tyrone’s water system if the borough’s lines are extended, a step which Garhart confirmed.

Troubled connection

Complicating an extension of Tyrone’s water service is tension between borough council members and township supervisors.

It took months for the municipal bodies to pass a police-jurisdiction agreement, allowing borough police to respond to calls to Tyrone Hospital and the Tyrone Area High School campus, both of which are in the township.

Tyrone officials argued that Snyder supervisors were too cheap to contribute funding for Tyrone’s police force to protect areas of interest to all.

Supervisors retorted that Tyrone’s bloated budget had become a burden and rather than cut back and let state police provide coverage, the borough came looking for handouts that Snyder residents didn’t want to give.

The police agreement finally passed in April without a Snyder contribution, but on extending water service, it is unclear who, if anyone, will concede.

Sheets said she understands why Snyder officials don’t want to foot the bill for replacing a water line they won’t be in control of or receive revenue from.

Garhart said, however, that the burden falls on Snyder’s shoulders, whose residents pay taxes for the supervisors to address their needs.

While the association works to secure grant money, Sheets said she asked whether the borough water authority would consider waiving its $1,000-per-hookup tap fee.

Snyder officials have been putting in a lot of leg work on the project, she said, and will finish the project at a loss – either “time or money, or both.”

“Tyrone stands to benefit financially” from adding dozens of monthly users, Sheets said, and could make money in the long run by making a short-term concession on tap fees.

But Garhart said the authority has to treat Vail customers like any other resident, and the tap fee is how those users have bought into the system.

Once the borough takes ownership of the lines, as per a memorandum of understanding that would have to be executed before a grant application moved forward, it becomes the borough’s responsibility to maintain and repair them, Garhart said.

She said the borough does not have the authority to waive the fee in total but will look at setting up a payment schedule on a case-by-case basis for individuals.

The fee amount is in compliance with the 2003 Act 57 law to make sure it isn’t excessive, Garhart said.

Give and take

Diehl, along with the other two supervisors, are upset that Tyrone won’t give in on the tap fees.

He pointed to the Industrial Park line, paid for with Altoona-Blair County Development Corp. funds to spur economic development, saying that the Vail setup would be the same.

Tyrone won’t plan, build or pay for the line but still insists on charging Vail customers to tap on when it’s done, he said.

“They do not cooperate with anybody,” Diehl said. “They don’t even know what intergovernmental cooperation is.”

Garhart was quick to point out that although outside funding paid for the line to the industrial park, Smith Transport Inc. still was charged a tap fee.

Also, the borough already has invested time and money in the project and had to refund thousands of dollars when Snyder told Tyrone last year that it wasn’t allowed to add on individual customers, she said.

Since then, the borough has gotten only “bits and pieces” of information about the project, she said, and believes Tyrone is being kept out of the loop.

Garhart said she knows nothing about the design plans or timeline for engineering studies and grant applications, and no information is being shared.

“It’s really a shame what’s happening to those residents,” she said, but they will be at a standstill until Tyrone gets more information.

Paying to upgrade

Before any work can be done, the association needs to receive grant money lots of it.

According to Mirror reports, Vail applied in April 2012 for $125,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding from the Blair County commissioners. It was the only one of the five applicants to be turned down, with Commissioner Diane Meling saying that the project was still in its conceptual stage.

Sheets said Snyder hasn’t applied this year for CDBG funds for the Vail project because not enough planning progress has been made.

The project cost estimates top $680,000, Sheets said, and a grant application should be going through next month if an intermunicipal agreement is in place and a memorandum of understanding is signed.

She said she hopes both sides can put differences and past disagreements behind them for the good of Vail Water Association customers.

Waiting for a solution

As Stringer awaits an agreement, he said he isn’t trying to pin the blame on any one person or entity.

He said he’s upset the DEP is pushing people off of small water systems, and he’s upset that Snyder supervisors are holding out because they “don’t like Tyrone telling them what to do.”

At the same time, he said, Snyder customers are “nothing to Tyrone” except some tap-fee money and a monthly check.

Stringer said Templeton, too, shares some blame. He knew about the DEP regulations before anyone else and should have acted earlier.

“Who’s to say who’s at the bottom of it,” Stringer said, although he’s frustrated that people like him will end up holding the bag and footing the bill.

But he’s hopeful that a solution will come, still.

“People are pretty resourceful. And when they pull together, they can make things happen,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.