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Regulators reject Woodstock water rate hike as provider faces aging infrastructure, flood damage

A 4-inch pipe extends along the side of a bridge.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
A 4-inch pipe extends across the Elm Street Bridge in Woodstock in September 2023, months after flooding in July destroyed the original connection. The pipe is still there, and the Woodstock Aqueduct Company does not have the money to fix it.

The Woodstock Aqueduct Company needs cash, but the state’s not ready to let them raise their water rates right now.

The company told the Public Utility Commission (PUC) last month that it wanted to raise its rates by more than 100%. A typical user would see a monthly bill go from $240 to $525.

But the PUC this week said it was not ready to approve that request due to the scale of the rate increase.

The company doesn’t have enough money to fix the damage from last summer’s flooding, and there’s still a temporary pipe lying across a busy bridge in town.

On top of that, the aging system needs more than $4 million in upgrades to meet state water standards around pressure and flow, largely due to the outdated fire hydrants around Woodstock.

Jireh Billings, president of Woodstock Aqueduct Company, said he expected state regulators to ask more questions about the company’s finances before approving the rate hike.

“The numbers are big. It’s enormous to keep the hydrant system,” Billings said. “So none of this is any surprise.”

The PUC decision comes as Billings is in negotiations with the town of Woodstock over selling the water system to the town.

According to PUC data, Woodstock Aqueduct Company is one of only 16 privately run water systems in Vermont, and most of those are at ski resorts.

If the town takes over the system, and it’s run as a municipal utility like most of the other water systems in the state, it would become eligible for a range of state and federal grants and low interest loans that the privately run company cannot access.

More from Vermont Public: Owners of privately run Woodstock water company want town to purchase system

Billings said even though he’s hoping a deal will go through soon, he had to ask for the rate increase. Because if the voters reject the deal, he needs more income to begin addressing the infrastructure challenges.

“There’s no way that I could go down the path of relying on the voters voting to take over the company,” he said.

The Woodstock Select Board last week held a public hearing to bring the town up to speed on how talks have been going with the water company, which has been serving Woodstock since 1887.

During the flooding last July, customers lost water for 11 days, as the vulnerable infrastructure was overwhelmed by the impact of the rain.

The company already knew about the work it had to do to bring the fire hydrants system up to state standards, but the flooding damage stressed their financial situation even more.

So Billings approached the town about selling the water company, and the select board signed a letter of intent in February to begin negotiations.

The town was not ready to announce a price at the meeting last week.

If the board decides to make an offer for the system, voters will have to approve the sale and approve the bond.

A vote could take place sometime this year, according to information released at the meeting.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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