Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bellevue sewer rates become an election issue

Sewer collections at 85 to 90 percent

Express Staff Writer

    Bellevue voters may be thinking about their sewer fees as they go to the polls.
    Sewer rates have risen from $45 to $75 since 2008, largely to pay for a $9.5 million wastewater system built in 2007.
    Residents passed a $6 million bond in 2005 to pay for the facility, when the population of the city was expected to grow at 4 percent annually.
    Councilman Larry Plott has pitched the possible annexation of 227 acres of the Eccles Flying Hat Ranch as a means for lowering sewer rates. Challengers for three open seats on the council say the city should slow down and consider instead the impacts that the annexation could have on the downtown core, and entire Wood River Valley.
    An ensuing debate between Plott and former Bellevue City Administrator Tom Blanchard has brought into question why the new sewer facility was built in the first place.
    Plott said at a City Council meeting two weeks ago that the facility was built to accommodate annexations planned in 2006 by Harry Rinker and John Sherer, which did not materialize.
    Blanchard, who ran the city’s business at the time, maintains that the facility was built to meet new restrictions on wastewater discharge implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and not for annexations.
    Brandon Keller, of Keller Associates engineering firm, which oversaw construction of the sewer facility, wrote in an email exchange this week that the new facility was built to replace an old lagoon-style sewer plant because it was “unable to treat the wastewater to remove nitrogen to a level required by a discharge permit issued by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality with existing treatment facility at existing flows.”
    Keller said major components at the 12-year-old plant were in need of replacement in 2005, due to typical wear and the age of plant.
    A Bellevue Wastewater Facilities Planning Study presented to the City Council in 2005 by Keller indicated that a new membrane bio-reactor facility was needed to both replace the old facility and accommodate the pressure from new growth.
    Keller wrote this week that the project cost was approximately $7,321,000, including construction equipment, engineering, power upgrades, permitting and other expenses.  
    That amount does not include the 3.55 percent annual interest on the $6 million 20-year loan from the Department of Environmental Quality’s revolving fund, which equates to an additional $2.2 million over 20 years, said Keller.
    The city received an Idaho Department of Commerce block grant of $500,000 to help pay for the facility. It also applied for a $1.5 million special congressional appropriation grant, but did not receive one.
    Keller stated at a City Council meeting two years ago that the city would need to “build itself out” of the high rates, meaning that it could use new connection fees to reduce the sewer rates for all residents.
    In 2010, the city was owed $30,000 in uncollected fees, spurring city leaders to post disconnection notices and turn to collection agencies to collect from past-due accounts.
    Mayor Chris Koch said in an interview that the city’s sewer fee collection rate has averaged 85 to 90 percent over the past few years. He said there have been minimal accounts turned over to two collection agencies, which have collected all the past due amounts.

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