County weighs water, sewer idea

JOHNSTOWN – Fulton County government is considering the possibility of consolidating municipal water and sewer services in the county into one county-run operation.

Supervisors on Monday supported seeking proposals to help the county develop what it is calling a “SMART” water and sewer system that would be more efficient and eventually could consolidate all water and sewer services in the county.

The Board of Supervisors’ Buildings and Grounds-Highway Committee approved sending requests for proposals, or RFPs, to engineering and legal firms to evaluate what county Planning Director James Mraz said are four models.

The models may involve creation of a county water and sewer “authority” or “district,” and could eventually entail the purchase of existing water systems or at least the purchase of certain capacity from the systems, officials said.

Proposals would be due June 12, with the county hiring a consultant in July. The consultant’s final report would be submitted to the county in October.

Johnstown 1st Ward Supervisor Richard Handy, a committee member and member of the Gloversville-Johnstown Joint Sewer Board, said the sewer plant has the capacity to handle many more businesses.

“I think it’s got to be done,” Handy said of Monday’s proposal.

Monday’s action will be reviewed by the board’s Economic Development Committee today and the Finance Committee on Thursday. Final approval on sending RFPs would come from the full board May 13.

Mraz said after the county gets its RFPs back, it will evaluate which model is “best suited” for the SMART system.

“We need to see development occurring in this county in order to keep your tax rates stable,” Mraz said. “There’s just no other way around it.”

He said the professional consultant would test the following hypothesis:

“The operation and maintenance of Fulton County’s ‘SMART’ water and sewer system would be a more efficient model to deliver water and sewer services and promote economic development in the region than the existing approach of operating and maintaining independent systems.”

Mraz and county Administrative Officer Jon Stead have written the RFP to determine if a more “regional” approach to delivering water and sewer services would greatly boost the county’s economy. Mraz said he and Stead have “talked about this for many years.” More business development would create more sales tax in the county, which would offset high property taxes, county officials said.

“This is to put together some different models,” Stead said. “Then the Board of Supervisors is going to look at those models and say, ‘Does this make sense for our community?'”

But Stead said this new system might “not necessarily be countywide.”

“This is the start of a process,” Mraz said.

Mraz said community leaders in the county’s 2007 Economic Summit noted a “dichotomy” between the abundance of water and sewer capacity in the county and lack of availability outside the cities. He said the summit determined that to be a “key obstacle” to economic growth. Also, he said, the Fulton Montgomery CEO Roundtable group in 2011 noted a lack of availability of water and sewer where “vacant, developable land is available.”

In 2002, the Board of Supervisors designated itself as the county “water and sewer agency,” Mraz said. The agency is authorized to exercise “all powers prescribed” under state county law “together with such other powers and duties” county supervisors deem necessary, he said. By 2005, the county created Fulton County Water District No. 1 and Sewer District No. 1, as part of a project to extend municipal water and sewer services to Fulton-Montgomery Community College, BOCES and the county airport.

Mraz said there are six municipal water systems operating in the county in the cities of Gloversville and Johnstown; villages of Broadalbin, Mayfield and Northville; and at Sacandaga Park in the town of Northampton. There are five municipal wastewater operations: the two cities, villages of Broadalbin and Mayfield and Sacandaga Park.

Gloversville Mayor Dayton King today said he had “no idea” the proposal would come before county supervisors. He said he wished his city government had a representative on a county legislative body.

Gloversville 5th Ward Supervisor Michael Ponticello, a mayoral candidate who sits on the committee, said he needs to “clarify” what the county is seeking.

“We need to start looking at consolidation of services as a need for economic development,” he said.

But Ponticello said Gloversville needs to maintain “ownership” of its water and sewer services until further decisions are made.

“I find it very interesting that no one has approached me about this proposal,” Johnstown Mayor Sarah Slingerland said today.

Slingerland added it is an “interesting” idea if there were an offer to buy city water and sewer services.