Friday, November 4, 2005

Bellevue to vote on $6 million sewer bond request

Councilwoman says a 'no' vote could result in major fines

Express Staff Writer

Bellevue City Administrator Tom Blanchard stands at the edge of one the three ponds that make up the city's lagoon wastewater treatment system. The city of Bellevue is asking voters to approve a $6 million sewer bond to replace the now-antiquated system. Photo by David N. Seelig

Bellevue city officials this week said a proposed $6 million sewer bond is needed to meet higher federal environmental standards and make up for a lack of funds required to replace its outdated wastewater treatment plant. Moreover, they said, the bond would not place any new financial burdens on citizens.

Bellevue voters will consider the proposed revenue bond on Tuesday, Nov. 8. If approved, funds from the bond will help pay for the construction of a "membrane bioreactor plant" to replace the city's existing wastewater plant.

Passage of the revenue bond requires only a simple majority, or one vote over 50 percent. A revenue bond is a type of municipal bond that guarantees repayment from revenues generated by a specific income-generating operation associated with the purpose of the bond.

Bellevue's 12-year-old wastewater treatment plant is out of compliance with federal environmental standards enforced by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. The plant fell out of compliance after the federal government instituted more stringent environmental standards.

Bellevue City Administrator Tom Blanchard said the new plant would no longer use the now-antiquated lagoon treatment process. Under that process, wastewater flows into sewer ponds where natural bacteria break the waste down into a less toxic effluent.

Blanchard said the treated wastewater coming out of the lagoon treatment system is still nitrogen-rich, though, which leads to violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Since Bellevue built the lagoon treatment plant, the basic understanding of the health and environmental hazards of nitrogen has increased, he said. Accordingly, the DEQ has raised its standards, Blanchard said.

"We recognize that nitrogen is degrading," he said.

The proposed membrane bioreactor plant would address today's higher standards, including those for nitrogen, by using a more modern, highly efficient membrane filtration process, Blanchard said.

"It's the state-of-the-art system," he said.

On Oct. 1, Bellevue raised sewer rates from $18.21 to $35 per residential hookup in anticipation of the upcoming vote on the sewer revenue bond, Blanchard said. If Bellevue voters approve the sewer bond, funds from the increased sewer rate will be used to repay the bond over its 20-year lifespan, Blanchard said. If the bond is rejected, the city will still have to retain the sewer rates to raise funds for the replacement of the current plant, he said.

Bellevue residents won't feel any additional fiscal impacts above the already increased sewer rates if the bond is approved, Blanchard said.

"In other words, your taxes and your sewer rates won't go up, it's already there," he said. "It should be easy to say 'yes' on this one."

However, not everyone is supportive of the Bellevue sewer bond. In a letter to the editor in the Wednesday edition of the Wood River Journal, Dennis Wright, a Blaine County commissioner and former Bellevue mayor, expressed skepticism with the need for the bond.

Wright was mayor of Bellevue when the current lagoon treatment plant was approved and built.

In his letter, Wright claims the only persons who will benefit from the bond are developers Harry Rinker, John Scherer and Jeff Pfaeffle, all of whom are in the process of applying to have their properties annexed into the city.

Wright contends the proposed membrane bioreactor plant was designed to accommodate the future needs of a much larger Bellevue after the Rinker, Scherer and Pfaeffle properties have been annexed.

He also claims nitrates aren't hurting anyone and the city should require the DEQ to explain why they allowed a system (the current lagoon treatment plant) to be built that wouldn't be adequate 20 years into the future.

Blanchard said Wright's claims are unfounded.

Bellevue approved the lagoon treatment plant under Wright's leadership, Blanchard said. The DEQ's acceptance of the plant 12 years ago was based on the current level of understanding of health and environmental risks at that time, he said.

Still, blame for the decision shouldn't be directed at anyone in particular, Blanchard said.

"Both parties were dealing with what was the known risks at the time," Blanchard said. "We didn't recognize the degree to which nitrogen was a problem. We built to the standard of the day."

Blanchard said a benefit of the proposed new plant is that its capabilities could be expanded at any point in the future if new environmental regulations required it.

"You can easily pop in a new component," he said.

Blanchard said the City Council decided to go against the recommendations of engineers when they had them design the membrane bioreactor plant to accommodate only the city's current needs.

"Any new growth has to pay its own way," he said.

Adding capacity will also be relatively easy because the design of the membrane bioreactor plant can easily accommodate additions, Blanchard said.

"You don't have to enlarge the plant or start from scratch," he said. "It's very modular."

If voters reject the sewer bond, the city will be subject to fines resulting from continued noncompliance with federal environmental standards, Bellevue City Councilwoman Tammy Eaton said.

So far, the DEQ has worked with the city, Eaton said. But if Bellevue voters reject the bond the DEQ will immediately enter into negotiations with the city, she said.

DEQ-imposed fines could run as high as $1,000 per day, per violation, Eaton said.

"And we would still be forced to fix it," she said.

Lacking a yes vote on the sewer bond, the city won't qualify for various forms of financial assistance from the federal government, Eaton said. Without such assistance, sewer rates for Bellevue residents could go as high as $65, she added.

Eaton said Bellevue city officials hope to break ground on the approximately 50-by-120-feet membrane bioreactor plant sometime next summer or fall.

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