Fulton County

Fonda offers to take control of sewer plant

Fonda-Fultonville Wastewater Treatment Board has been forced to meet on a monthly basis to address a "Notice of Violation" order

FONDA — Fonda Mayor William Peeler made a surprise proposal Tuesday night for his village to take full control of the Fonda-Fultonville Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Peeler made his proposal to the members of the joint wastewater treatment board, composed of village board members from both Fonda and Fultonville. Fultonville Mayor Linda Petterson-Law serves on the joint board but was not present due to a medical issue. 

“If we hash out this agreement, where we’re jointly joined together, our feeling is, and my feeling is, we feel together as a Fonda Board, that we feel that it might last for a while, but it’s not going to last forever. We’ll be right back at each other’s throats,” Peeler said. 

After years of being largely inactive, the Fonda-Fultonville Wastewater Treatment Board has been forced to meet on a monthly basis to address a “Notice of Violation” order sent to the two villages on June 6 by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The notice, written by Erica Cruden, professional engineer 1 of the Division of Water, says the plant has been mismanaged and “appears to be on the brink of an upset, due to lack of proper solids handling combined with having the secondary clarifier inoperable and offline, and a lack of adequate staffing.” 

The notice lists a series of corrective actions, including that the plant stops receiving septage, remove all sludge, add adequate staffing, submit a schedule of repair for the south clarifier,  prepare a mercury minimization program and to finalize a new intermunicipal agreement by Dec. 31.

If the joint board can’t fix the myriad of problems with the sewer plant, the plant, and thus the two villages that pay all the expenses for the plant, will face fines up to “$37,500 per day.”

Fultonville Village Trustee Steve Helmin says the joint board has addressed all of the DEC’s concerns, except for the negotiation of a new intermunicipal agreement. He said DEC wants the villages to have a new agreement that will create a smaller board, a clearer budget process, and give additional powers to the treatment board. Currently, the board can’t borrow money, only the villages can do that, and it lacks the jurisdictional authority to enforce any rules regarding the disposal of waste at the plant. 

Peeler’s offer Tuesday to take over complete control of the plant comes after a dramatic shouting match between himself and Petterson-Law at the board’s July 16 meeting, during which Peeler gave a five-minute speech stating there “would be no new agreement,” listing a series of his grievances against Petterson-Law’s leadership style, chief among them the possible lawsuit both villages face from Albany-based engineering firm the LaBerge Engineering & Consulting Group.

The LaBerge Group, through its law firm Couch White, issued a notice of claim to the joint sewer board and both villages on April 30 alleging the firm is owed $128,362 for an engineering study it completed in February 2018 for three projects: replacement of the Fultonville Broad Street Pump Station, replacement of a clarifier at the treatment plant, and work on a sewer system for Center Street in Fonda. None of those projects have been started due to the dispute. LaBerge also states it is owed another $1,023 from the village of Fultonville for alleged breach of contract. 

Currently, Fultonville has the “lead agency” status over the wastewater plant, giving Petterson-Law and her village board the authority to refuse payment to LaBerge. 

Petterson-Law and Fultonville Deputy Mayor Tim Morford have stated Fultonville has no signed contract with LaBerge for the engineering study. Petterson-Law says LaBerge was never properly hired through a legal procurement process, and she blames what she alleges were clandestine maneuvers of former Village Mayor Robert Headwell, who was also the chairman of the joint sewer board, and former Village Clerk Tom DiMezza for the legal dispute with LaBerge. 

Headwell is currently the chairman of the Montgomery County Legislature, while DiMezza is the long-serving supervisor of the town of Amsterdam. 

Peeler at the July joint sewer board meeting argued Petterson-Law’s concerns about the contract, or lack thereof, with LaBerge do not represent a “fatal error” and that the firm should be paid, eliminating the threat of lawsuit, and the villages should move on.

“They did the work with no contract,”  Petterson-Law said at the July 16 meeting. 

“So you sign the contract!” Peeler said. 

“You want me to say ‘oh, that’s OK’, but I have no idea that any of this is right, and I am not going to ‘make up’ records,”  she said. 

Yet, as mayor, Petterson-Law has countered that paying LaBerge would place her in legal jeopardy filing a false instrument. She said the New York State Comptroller’s Office has been contacted and is currently investigating the matter. She said she would like to go through a competitive bidding process for a new engineering study, using funds from the “Grant 16” $900,000 Community Development Block Grant that LaBerge wants to be paid from.

“When I met with the office of community renewal, our choice was to give up the money or start the process from the beginning which we did. They said because LaBerge did work without a contract their work would not be reimbursed by the grant. Legally, no contract. No obligation. This is in municipal law, federal funding regulations, and our own procurement policy,” Petterson-Law said. 

Peeler wants to pay LaBerge instead. Tuesday night he made a short presentation arguing the joint sewer plant did contract with LaBerge legally and owes the firm the money. He said he’d prefer to take complete control of the sewer plant rather than continue to fight over control of it.

He argued: “The village of Fonda board, we’ve seen this repetitive thing. Everybody played footsie, everybody got along well initially, but then it fell apart. And it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in my position, or who’s sitting in Linda’s position. If we write a new agreement, everything is hunky-dory and then it’s tough and difficult to get 10 [joint sewer board] members together for meetings,” he said. “So, to get directly to the point, the village of Fonda would like to return back to owner and manager of the wastewater treatment plant, 100 percent. The hook with that would be an agreement for however long a period of time that our rates, Fonda’s rates, would never be lower than Fultonville’s rates.” 

While Morford and Helmin listened to Peeler’s proposal, no decision was made Tuesday night.

Morford said Peeler could settle the contract with LaBerge if Fonda had sole control of the wastewater treatment plant. He provided an image of a document to The Daily Gazette that he said was from the LaBerge group. It was sent to the village during the beginning of Petterson-Law’s term before she had come to the opinion the village’s dealings with LaBerge had not been legal. The document states, under the heading “Problems, concerns, other,” that the firm does “… not have copies of signed professional services contract or HCR grant agreement.” 

“LaBerge is arguing they have an implicit contract, but they provided us with documents admitting they don’t have a signed contract,” Morford said. 

A representative of the LaBerge group, who did not identify himself to The Daily Gazette, and the company’s attorney, Donald Hillman, attended the joint sewer board’s meeting Tuesday night. Hillman and the LaBerge representative met with the joint sewer board in executive session for more than an hour.

The reason given for the executive session was to discuss “pending litigation,” a reason normally given to allow a municipal government to keep its legal strategy secret from the other side of a possible lawsuit. In this case, all of the principles in the potential lawsuit were together in the meeting.

Petterson-Law has also alleged the LaBerge Group asked Fultonville officials to create documents that would show the company obtained the engineering study through a legal bidding process that followed all of the rules of the Grant 16 money.

“They wanted us to make false records. That’s when we came across that there was nothing appointing them. They were never selected. There was no resolution, and there was no contract,” Petterson-Law said during the July 16 meeting. 

Hillman, in an interview in July, said Petterson-Law’s accusations are false. He then said the LaBerge Group has a signed contract for the work it has not been paid for, but refused to provide a copy of the document to The Daily Gazette.

“There’s a contract. The client did work. This whole thing about creating documents is not true,” Hillman said. “I’m not going to produce for the newspaper contract documents from my client.”

Petterson-Law has stated Fultonville has already paid LaBerge group approximately $358,000 for work it did for the sewer plant going back to 2013, funded through other CBDG grants, all obtained and administered by Headwell. She said the village has asked for invoice documents detailing what the work was for, but the company has refused to provide them. 

Hillman disputed Petterson-Law’s claim. 

“We’ve given them invoices, what they did with them is anybody’s guess,” Hillman said. 

Headwell, in an interview in July, said he believes there was a written contract with LaBerge that he signed while he was still the chairman of the joint sewer board. He said he resigned his chairman position in June 2018. He said he won’t attend the joint sewer meetings because it would be futile, but he offered them a piece of advice. 

“Pay Laberge,” he said. “Laberge is owed the money, for doing the work, they were an outstanding engineering company. When Tom DiMezza and I left the village offices, all of the documents, for all of the grants and everything were left with them. What happened with the paperwork, what they did with the paperwork, God only knows.”

Headwell blamed George Donaldson, a former village trustee who was briefly appointed interim mayor after he left to become a county legislator, for the confusion.

“After I left being the mayor, George Donaldson took over as the mayor and he went through all kinds of paperwork, so God only knows what paperwork was thrown away, what paperwork was kept. Nobody knows what anybody did. They’ve got more people, when I was the mayor, Tom DiMezza was in the office, those were the only hands that were touching any of the stuff,” he said. “When I left, George Donaldson became the mayor, all kinds of people were coming in and out of the offices. God only knows what happened to anything.”

Donaldson did not respond to a social media message soliciting comment for this story.

Headwell said he doesn’t know for certain what happened with the contract with LaBerge.

“I 100 percent can’t tell you there was, because there might have been one toward the end, but I’m not 100 percent sure, but I would have thought there was a contract that was signed. Who knows [where it would be], again there’s been a lot of different people in and out of that office, and if you really don’t know what you’re looking for or doing, things could have been tossed, or moved, or things,” he said.

Headwell said there had been an attempt to form a new intermunicipal agreement for the treatment plant several years before he resigned as chairman of the treatment board. He said the sewer plant lacks the authority to go after users of the plant that don’t comply with its rules, which became an issue when Fultonville-based Perrone Leather, “.., dumped some stuff into the sewer plant that shouldn’t have gone into it, nobody had authority to hold Perrone Leather accountable” 

Headwell said the municipalities that dispose of wastewater at the plant — the towns of Glen and Mohawk and the villages of Fultonville and Fonda — all have ordinances in place that agree with the plant’s rules, except Fonda.

“The only holdout was Fonda. At that point Bill Peeler wanted the wastewater chairman to be someone who did not live in the town of Mohawk, town of Glen, village of Fonda, village of Fultonville — he wanted the board made up outside people who had no skin in the game,” Headwell said.

Petterson-Law said she has discussed Peeler’s proposal to acquire 100 percent control of the plant with her village board and she believes the idea is a “non-starter.” 

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