East Smithfield Water District willing to merge, but has back-up plan

East Smithfield Water District willing to merge, but has back-up plan

SMITHFIELD - The town and the separate East Smithfield Water District appear ready to try again for legislation that would allow them to merge the two water systems, but as a hedge if that fails the East Smithfield District is contemplating a contract with a private management company.

A consolidation bill failed in the General Assembly last year after some legislators questioned the move because it would require the town to cede its water system's assets to a new and independent district that would include East Smithfield's system.

Raymond DiSanto, general manager of the East Smithfield District, a chartered nonprofit serving 7,700 people in Smithfield and North Providence, said Whitewater Inc., a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based utility contractor R.H. White, has offered a three-year management contract at $167,930 annually.

DiSanto said that's about $50,000 less than East Smithfield now pays in salary and benefits to its four full-time employees, including him.

The town and East Smithfield have been negotiating a potential water merger for years, but General Assembly approval is needed, as well as approval at the polls by ratepayers of both districts, who would vote in separate elections.

At a recent meeting, East Smithfield's board of directors voted to endorse a move for another try at the required legislation, and the Town Council has scheduled a vote on the same issue for its March 4 meeting.

Town Manager Dennis Finlay has said that consolidation would be a significant step toward standardizing water rates in town and minimizing duplication of effort.

State Rep. Thomas Winfield of Smithfield said that in the last legislative session there was concern over the precedent of the town giving up control of its water district, which is one of three serving Smithfield.

The other is the Greenville Water District, which like East Smithfield is a chartered entity separate from municipal government.

Greenville has said it is not interested in a merger.

DiSanto said a merger, or a switch to outside management, would provide sounder emergency backup for his district, with its few employees and generally antiquated pipelines that require more frequent replacement than in the other districts.

Largely for that reason, he said, his district's water rates run some 30 percent higher than do the town's.

While that might make a merger a hard sell to ratepayers in the municipal district, he said, the upside would be economy of scale and reduced duplication of effort.

He said his system is also at a disadvantage because it has no large-volume customers like Bryant University and Fidelity Investments, which under the town's tiered billing system pay higher prices for their water than domestic users.

DiSanto said representatives of Whitewater made a proposal to his board of directors during a visit here, and that if a merger fails, "We would re-visit that and look at it very seriously."

Last year's bill, which stalled in both the House and the Senate, proposed a new entity, the Smithfield Consolidated Water District, to be run by a seven-member board of directors.

The board would be elected by the district's voters, who would also adopt the annual budget.

The district would set its own water rates and have the power to acquire property through eminent domain.

At least four of the directors would be from Smithfield and at least two from North Providence, serving staggered three-year terms.