Friday, May 9, 2008

Sewer rate hike in store for Bellevue

City officials blame federal government for increase

Express Staff Writer

Bellevue hopes to begin construction of a $6 million "bioreactor" wastewater treatment facility next month. Due to an expected shortfall in federal appropriations this year, city officials hope to raise sewer rates at least $10 per month to pay for it.

"Right now we are scrambling to raise money to cover the diminishing federal support for Idaho communities," said City Administrator Tom Blanchard.

Upgrading the 15-year-old, lagoon-type wastewater treatment plant is not an option for the city. The plant fell out of compliance with environmental standards several years ago after the federal government instituted more stringent limits on nitrogen concentrations in treated water. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality threatened to levy fines at that time against the city of up to $1,000 per day. In response to the crisis, city officials raised sewer rates in 2005, from $18.21 to $35 per residential hookup, to pay for a new facility.

In February 2007, Bellevue was awarded a $6 million low-interest loan by the DEQ to help fund construction of a new 50-by-120-foot facility. This year the city applied for an additional $2 million in the form of earmark appropriations from the federal government. However, Blanchard said he doesn't expect the city to receive anywhere near that much.

"We weren't just shooting for the sky when we went for $2 million," Blanchard said. "The feds were giving $1.5 to $2 million regularly for projects like this three years ago. The political climate has changed. Last year no Idaho city got more than a half million for such a project."

Blanchard said the rate increase will provide an additional $10,000 a month, or $180,000 to the city sewer fund to begin paying back the DEQ loan when it comes due in 18 months.

"The more we have in our fund at that time, the less we will have to bond for," he said.

Bellevue has $1.13 million in its sewer fund. Blanchard said $750,000 is a "reasonable amount" for the city to contribute to the project from the fund. The rest will be used for operational costs.

At an April 10 City Council meeting, Oak Street resident Theresa Bergin expressed concern over the proposed increase, saying it would pose a challenge to those who can least afford it. Bergin owns and rents five homes and 13 trailer-park spaces in Bellevue, providing what she called "affordable housing." Bergin's sewer rates would rise $2,100 per year.

"You can't always pass this rate increase on to the renters," she said. "They sometimes just can't afford it."

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, holds a seat on the powerful congressional appropriations committee and has written in support of "earmark spending" as an alternative to leaving money in the hands of federal agencies in Washington.

"Earmark spending is a hot political item right now," said Simpson's communication director, Vikki Watts. "A lot more scrutiny is being applied to them."

Congress will decide on appropriations for Idaho cities in January.

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