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Water criticism dominates meeting

Fredonia’s trustees listened to an hour and a half of criticism and advice Tuesday night from citizens about the village water system.

A public hearing was held on a proposed rate hike of $2 per 1,000 gallons used. There was no vote on the proposal.

The hearing was held, trustees took a short break, then the cavalcade of critics continued almost as soon as the board’s regular bi-weekly meeting began.

There was little mention of the water main breaks that plagued the west side of the village Saturday. Speakers held to the big picture, stating that the village must do something about its old pipes. The ancient piping system took the blame for recent brown water reports around Fredonia.

Critics of the proposed rate hike said it should be done during the village’s upcoming budget compilation. They also pushed back on Trustee Jon Espersen’s assertion that it costs $8.81 to produce each 1,000 gallons of water, nearly $4 more than it currently costs to use the same amount.

Some also urged the village to repair and upgrade its metering system so it can account for millions of gallons of lost water.

Many of the speakers were familiar faces who have criticized village officials at meetings for months over their handling of the water system. Some were former village officials themselves: Former Trustee James Lynden, ex-Village Attorney Sam Drayo and ex-Treasurer James Sedota were among them.

There were a total of 12 speakers, two of whom, Andrew Ludwig and Richard Leone, spoke in both the water hike hearing and the meeting’s public comments session. Both of them have also spoken often on the water issue at previous meetings.

The fiery Ludwig went first, opening the hearing, and initially said he was sorry “if my passion expressed in my speech and questions at previous meetings was taken for aggression.” He then bashed village government in general for its handling of the water system and demanded the officials acknowledge brown water will remain a problem until mains get replaced. He wondered how much of the money from the proposed rate hike would go towards new piping.

Lynden, who was voted out of office in November, asked trustees to reject the rate hike.

“Apparently we have some new members on this board that don’t understand the budget process. We also have some other ones that apparently don’t understand the budget,” he said.

He said Espersen misunderstood the budget when he floated his $8.81 per 1,000 gallons production costs number and declared to him, “Your numbers can’t be factual.” Lynden also lectured trustees on what their budget making process should be.

Leone’s lengthy comments boiled down to a claim that it cost only $4.18 to make 1,000 gallons, using his own calculations; and an assertion that the water system’s biggest financial problem is not billing for hundreds of millions of gallons.

One hearing speaker mixed anti-government rhetoric with a plea to save Fredonia’s reservoir. She stated her residence uses well water, not Fredonia’s system.

Bob Scott, yet another water system aficionado familiar from recent meetings, stated, “I can’t honestly argue against a $2 increase tonight. However, I believe the trustees need to share their future studies to substantiate the second $2 increase, or whatever amount they pick out of the air to propose next time.”

He added, “Right now I have little faith or confidence that the Village Board will make a correct decision in a timely matter. Please, please prove me wrong.”

During the regular meeting, Rob Clark, stating he was speaking for a group of like-minded people, said, “We certainly didn’t expect a very small group of people to leverage off their official positions and attack our municipal water system. Many people are just waking up to it, and because of your squeeze on information, people are still struggling to find facts, even unsure of how to separate source from distribution problems. But it’s not going to be long before most people understand that changing the source fixes none of the distribution problems, and it comes at an incredible cost.”

Drayo, who was village attorney for many years, found himself cut off after three minutes by Mayor Michael Ferguson.

“You got much more, Sam?” wondered Ferguson.

“I’ve got a little bit, it’s important,” Drayo replied.

Ferguson responded, “Everybody’s discussion is important.”

Drayo attempted to continue his speech. “Sam, you’ve surpassed your three minutes and you were given more than three minutes,” Ferguson interjected.

“The problem is, this is more important than three minutes,” said Drayo. Ferguson blasted him.

“No, the problem is, you think your opinion is more important than the people who spoke for three minutes, Sam. I respect you, but you had the opportunity to right the organization down here, you did not do it,” the mayor said. “And you’re a lawyer, you know the rules.” Drayo sat down.

Former Trustee EvaDawn Bashaw made an appearance to ask officials to wait until their budget process for a tax raise. She also asked trustees to listen to the experience of all the former village officials who had spoken.

Espersen later stated his phone number and asked anyone with water system questions to call him. He acknowledged, “Probably 75% of the commercial meters in the village are old, probably nor calibrated, maybe not even working, maybe not have been tested in a long time.” He repeated a recent assertion that he wants to send business owners letters about their responsibility to replace or recalibrate meters.

Trustee Nicole Siracuse noted the $8.81 figure came from Treasurer Erlyssa LeBeau’s calculations and repeated Espersen’s breakdown of that number.

Siracuse said: “Instead of just simply doubling our rates, we wanted to give everybody a billing cycle of half of that increase, do our budget and see if we need to go up more – how much more, hopefully, within this budget we’ll nail a more specific number, where we at least break even.”

Some of the earlier speakers noted that the vast majority of attendees at a forum on village water issues wanted to keep the current system, in a show of hands. Siracuse responded, “A room of 30 to 50 people does not provide an accurate sample size for a village of 9 to 10,000 people.”

“Let’s have a referendum,” someone shouted from the audience. Espersen asked for silence as it was Siracuse’s turn to speak.

Trustee Michelle Twichell later stated that $6 billion in grants recently announced by the federal government for water infrastructure work could be used to repair and renovate treatment systems. Twichell is an opponent of the Dec. 26 trustees decision to shut down the treatment plant, draw down the water and buy water from Dunkirk.

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