Published in the August 24, 2017 edition
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — It’s been over a year since Town Meeting voted to join the MWRA by an 82 percent majority and bonded $1.25M to begin the necessary planning to acquire land for a pumping station and build the infrastructure to tie into the system through Reading in 2019.
But that hasn’t stopped Andover from continuing to court the town to stick with them after all.
For North Reading, joining the MWRA means eventually ending the agreement the town has had with Andover since 1991, which currently supplies two-thirds of the town’s water needs with the balance coming from the town’s own wells.
The town reluctantly pursued the MWRA option a few years ago after Andover told North Reading it could not supply 100 percent of the town’s water needs, as requested, to allow the town to retire its wells. North Reading then found a willing partner in Reading to make the MWRA connection possible. In January, the town purchased a home at 9 Mill St., near the Reading line off Rte. 28 on which to build a pumping station.
(In a separate matter, the Selectmen voted 4-0 to allow the sellers to remain in their home until Dec. 31, 2017. Selectman Andrew Schultz recused himself.)
But since last August, after a change in leadership and management in Andover, the neighbors to the north admitted that letting their largest water customer go would be a mistake.
Andover officials have been negotiating with North Reading to pitch a new partnership with a potential longevity of 99 years. On August 10, Andover’s selectmen voted 4-1 to allow their town manager to “enter into formal negations with North Reading to develop an agreement using these terms as a general framework.” These terms include a 99-year lease pending legislative approval and selling water to North Reading at five percent below the lowest tier paid by Andover residents as well as a commitment to “work together regarding a potential sewer connection through Andover.”
The outcome of these negotiations were discussed for two hours at Monday night’s selectmen’s meeting, with three members of the five-member board weary of the process and not considering this motion allow formal negotiations with the town a firm enough commitment to turn down the MWRA deal.
Selectmen Chairman Michael Prisco and Selectmen Andrew Schultz and Kathryn Manupelli were ready to pull the plug and tell Andover it was just too late to reconsider the deal. But Selectmen Bob Mauceri and Steve O’Leary persisted in raising the point that even at this late hour, it’s worthwhile to keep their options open if it creates a better alternative for generations to come.
Mauceri and O’Leary, along with Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto have been involved in the 10 negotiation sessions throughout the year with two Andover selectmen and Andover’s new Town Manager Andrew Flanagan.
The pros and cons raised by an in-depth PowerPoint developed by Mauceri based on the summary of terms included the cost of water over time, as he stated the MWRA annual increase over 10 years if 4.1% vs. 1.2% over a 20-year period with Andover. Other cost savings he pointed to included the potential of avoiding a capital cost estimated at$5M for a pump station (which assumes a grant is received) and the MWRA buy-in cost of $7.6M. Other favorable points included a “path to sewer for Route 28, Martins Pong and Concord Street via the Greater Lawrence Sewer District” and a similar MWRA sewer expansion for Concord Street. He said the town would have to consider that additional funds would need to be spent on consultants to further review an Andover option.
O’Leary pointed out that the Andover is willing to commit to allow the town to purchase up to 2.6 million gallons per day (mgd), with an option to increase that draw to 3.0 mgd after six years.
Manupelli commented that Andover has had sewer for years and despite the fact that North Reading has bought water from Andover since 1991 no option for sewer was ever made.
“We have been a water customer of Andover since 1991 and sewer never came into play,” Manupelli said, adding, “We made the big decision in 2015 of what it would cost to move forward with MWRA so in 2017 the chaos of adding graphs is steering us off course, but I don’t want to take away from all the work” done by Mauceri O’Leary and Gilleberto for the past year.
A termination right of either party with five years prior notice that would require the exiting party to pay a penalty of five years’ revenue did not sit right with Prisco. O’Leary said the town could simply take that option of the table then.
Arguments were also made that the 99-year lease with Andover lacks the permanence of a being an MWRA member and the fact that as a member of the MWRA the town would have a seat at the table, but under the Andover agreement as presented, North Reading would not have representation on its town Sewer and Water Commission because Andover’s selectmen double as members of this commission.
Schultz said, “We made it clear at our last meeting we wanted something hard. If we go with Andover we are just a customer with a five-year contract… Andover has a large commercial tax base and 20 years from now they can get out of it. With the MWRA, we are a partner,” Schultz added.
The long-term attraction to O’Leary and Mauceri in favor of the Andover agreement is the annual cost of water operations. The analysis was created by Water Superintendent Mark Clark for the period of 2020 to 2056 which shows the two options being similar in 2020 at just over $4M but the gap consistently widening until the MWRA cost peak at about $15M in 2056 while with Andover they would be just over $10M annually.
The charts also pointed to a fixed cost comparison totaling $9,870,000 for the MWRA plus a buy-in cost of $7,680,000 compared to fixed costs for the Andover option estimated to be $3,975,000 with zero buy-in costs.
“This is a huge decision as 100% of our water supply is going to be determined by a vote of this board and affect the town for 100 years,” O’Leary said.
DPW Director Andrew Lafferty told the board, “It would make a lot of sense to put that outline in a formal agreement with Andover… It is a 99-year agreement. It would be worth considering if Andover would be willing to take an extension on the IMA (inter- municipal agreement).”
FinCom member Don Kelliher told the board that the offer from Andover is “compelling” because “there is a potential for a huge savings for the town and for us not to explore it fully we will do everyone a disservice. Those are big big numbers.”
The savings on not making the capital expense to the MWRA could enable the town to do the sewerage it needs to expand the town’s commercial base, which he felt was worth taking an extra two to four weeks to work out a final agreement with the town of Andover.
Selectmen Chairman Michael Prisco thanked his fellow selectmen for the “tremendous effort and your motivation to get them to come to table and make an official agreement, but I want to remind everybody we already made a decision” because Andover “dragged us down this road. We did not want to be here.”
“They forced us to spend $2.4M and this draft offer, it’s pretty good but it’s fictitious. I can’t believe it,” Prisco added.
After initially being ready to vote 3-2 to end negotiations with Andover, the board decided to give Andover one more chance to come forward with a solid offer that reflects a vote of the board committed to this partnership in advance of their next board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Prisco also wants that offer from Andover to include funds that would reimburse Reading for any expenses that community incurred on behalf of its efforts to help North Reading tie into the MWRA.