Councilors Dodrill and Conditt say increased sewer rates is only solution to funding waste water plant ungrades

by: ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: JEFF SPIEGEL - The Estacada Waste Water Plant, which was built in 1986, wasnt built to filter out ammonia. As of 2010, however, its a DEQ mandate and so the plant needs upgrading.What are the two words that might be a city government’s worst nightmare? "Unfunded mandate."

For Estacada, that thought rang true two years ago when the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality came calling to tell the city its waste water treatment plant needed upgrades.

Naturally, DEQ wasn’t going to help pay for it.

“We have to get our permit renewed every six years and in 2010 they told us we needed to start treating for ammonia,” city councilor Michelle Conditt said. “Our plant was never built to treat for ammonia, though, it was built in 1986 when it wasn’t required.”

As Conditt explained, the waste water treatment plant operates as a zero-gain operation, meaning the city charges just enough to cover operations and maintenance.

“We take in what we need to run the service and that’s it,” she said. “In this instance, we don’t have any money in the coffer to pay for this upgrade, so we have to go to the voters.”

Since getting notified of the need at the end of 2010, the city first went to its engineers to see if there was a feasible solution that was affordable enough to prevent rate increases.

After trying three different ideas, however, none were successful.

Next, the city applied for a technical assistance grant, which brought in extra funding to determine the best way for the city to fix the problem affordably.

With a solution in mind, the city once again began the search for any grant money available to help pay for the upgrade, but they kept coming up against the same problem: they didn’t qualify.

“You need to be at a certain threshold of costs in order to qualify for funding, but the threshold is $30 more a month that what we charge,” Conditt said. “We have some of the lowest sewer rates in Oregon.”

Finally, the city realized it had no choice but to go to the people and ask for the $650,000 needed, in the form of a 20-year loan. In total, each billing unit will see an increase of $2.85 per month.

If the measure passes, the city would have the money needed to make the upgrades and everything would continue along as normal, because they have until 2015 to make the upgrade.

If the measure fails, however, things could change.

“None of us want to pay for this, but the problem is that we have to fix it,” city councilor Brent Dodrill said. “If this is voted down, we’re telling the government that we can’t fix this and they’re saying they might come in and take control, which means charging whatever needs to be charged. We don’t know that it would happen for sure, we just don’t know.

“One thing I do know is that they’re not just going to let it go.”

Among the possible repercussions of a failed measure would be a series of fines levied against the city for violating the DEQ mandate. As a result, the government could also privatize the facility, meaning all of a sudden, the plant would be operating on a for-profit basis.

“Somehow, money will have to be raised to fix the issue,” Dodrill said. “One thing that’s tough is that people look at the federal government and see the waste, and I agree wholeheartedly, but then they bring that assumption down to the city level and assume we do the same. If people would be in our budget meetings, they’d see we’re not just throwing around excess money.”

For both Dodrill and Conditt, the decision about how to handle this measure is a simple one.

“I don’t think there’s a rational argument out there for voting no, because it’s basic operations and maintenance,” Conditt said.

Measure 3-414 is one of two local measures on the Nov. 7 ballot.

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