Water tower loan goes to the voting booth in Bethany Beach

Voters will head to the polls in Bethany Beach on Saturday, but not to cast a vote for town council, since this year’s council elections were scrapped when only incumbents filed to run. Instead, Bethany voters will be voicing their support or opposition to the Town’s request to borrow up to $2.6 million in a low-interest loan from the state’s drinking water revolving fund to build a new water tower.

From noon to 6 p.m., Bethany Beach property owners who appear on their deed and full-time residents who have registered to vote in town elections can go to town hall, show proof of identity and vote for or against approving the Town taking out the loan, which is expected to be granted at a rate of less than 3 percent.

The referendum question reads: “To proceed with borrowing of an amount not to exceed 2.6 million dollars at an interest rate not to exceed 3.0% with the Division of Public Health Office of Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for the purpose of constructing a new water tower within the Town of Bethany Beach.” And voters will mark one of two options: “For the proposed borrowing” or “Against the proposed borrowing.”

The issue of the water tower has not been without controversy, most particularly over the issue of its location. Public meetings earlier this summer allowed the Town to make its case that the existing Collins Street water plant property was the best location for the new tower, saving the Town hundreds of thousands of dollars from other potential locations at the public works building north of town limits or on the former Church/Neff property where a park is currently planned to be constructed.

Having heard some opposition from property owners living near the water plant, over concerns about noise, removal of existing trees, aesthetics and more, and offering assurances that the end result would target their satisfaction, the council voted to go ahead with the engineer-recommended Collins Street location, clearing the way for a final estimate of costs for the water tower project and scheduling of this Saturday’s referendum.

The amount of the loan noted in the referendum question has been changed, from $3.7 million in early formulations to just $2.6 million in the question that will appear on Saturday’s ballot.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet had previously noted that the amount of the loan was expected to be considerably less than the $3.7 million that had been set as the maximum, and that the amount of interest was likewise expected to come in considerably under the 3 percent mark of the referendum question, in line with recent loans to other municipalities from the state fund.

Those figures are expected to be finalized after the referendum, assuming the loan is approved by voters, when the loan documents are finalized between the Town and the lender. Voters on Saturday will only be voting to approve a loan of no more than that top limit of $2.6 million and at no more than 3 percent interest.

The Town and individual council members have appealed to voters to vote for the proposed borrowing, citing ongoing problems with water quality that have plagued the municipal water supply in recent years — most notably with the rising levels of cancer-causing trihalomethanes that have appeared in water in the existing water standpipe over time.

Due to the seasonal nature of the town’s population, much of the water in the standpipe goes unused except in the summer. The naturally-occurring minerals in the water combine with the chlorine-based water treatment chemicals and, over time, create the trihalomethanes.

That’s not a problem during the summer, when higher population and water use turns over the water in the standpipe much more frequently and prevents the levels from exceeding guidelines. However, during slower times of the year, the Town might use as little as a quarter of the water in the million-gallon standpipe, never allowing the older water in the bottom to be replaced with fresher water and causing the levels of trihalomethanes to continue to increase.

In fact, the design of the standpipe, resting on the ground in a location near sea level, makes it all but impossible for the Town to access water that sits more than 30 feet below the top of the tank unless large quantities are being used.

Various changes to the water system have been considered in an effort to eliminate the problem, including a change to the water treatment chemicals that has only somewhat improved things.

In the end, engineers recommended the Town build an entirely new, elevated water tower that would allow all 500,000 gallons of its capacity to be accessible and eliminate the issue of water age as a problem for the system.

Under the proposed design of the system, the existing million-gallon standpipe would be used to augment the system’s capacity during peak use, when the water turnover rate is high enough to prevent trihalomethanes from exceeding limits.

During the slower times of the year, the overhead water tower would contain the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 gallons needed by residents, without additional water sitting around unused or needing to be discarded, as the Town has done since being cited for excess trihalomethanes, discarding 4 million gallons of treated water during several procedures each year.

Additionally, while the term of the loan is expected to be 20 years, town officials have already suggested they may pay the loan off in as little as 13 years, which would save the Town about $320,000 versus paying it off in 20 years.

By retaining the existing frontage based water sinking fund fee of $1.07 per foot that all water system customers pay, rather than reducing it to 76 cents per foot with the retirement of existing debt, the Town would be able to make that 13-year payoff mark and save the water department money hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.

Alternatively, the Town could reduce that fee for its customers and make the loan payment on the standard 20-year schedule.

Voters will get a chance to determine whether that loan will be made at all, and whether the Town’s water system gets a new lease on life, when they go to the polls on Saturday from noon to 6 p.m.