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By Beth Hutchinson
Seeley Lake, Mont. 

Sewer District Pushed to Decision-Making with Incomplete and Inadequate Information

 

November 2, 2017



SEELEY LAKE - I’ve been trying to work up a sheet of information, that anyone might understand, regarding the actual costs for constructing the proposed sewer. I obtained the only currently available project budget. That document consists of 2.5 pages and has two headings, “Collection System Phase 1” and “SBR (that’s the treatment mechanism that has a designed life of 20 years), Groundwater Discharge Phase 1”. There seems to be a problem stemming from the organization, or rather disorganization, of the materials that is keeping me from being able to determine the costs for various portions of the proposed system.

In order to see how costs and accompanying charges might play out over 40 years, wouldn’t you think the budget would be organized accordingly as follows: Costs for 1) Treatment Plant Systems, 2) General Collection System (the uphill part that each phase feeds into), 3) Groundwater Discharge System, 4) Phase 1 Collection System, 5) Phase 2 Collection System- projected estimate, 6) Phase 3- projected estimate and 7) Phase 4-projected estimate? Then almost anyone could gain a reasonable idea of costs for the entire system as well as how they related to each other.

We could anticipate where sub-parts were likely to hold up for 40 years and where things might break down and require replacement. You’d see that the SBR system—good for only 20 years, half the length of our debt service— has a current cost of nearly a million dollars. What might it cost in 20 or 21 years?

Many questions come to mind when you can review a well-organized budget.

It seems to me that there are three components that users of the proposed sewer system could need to pay for in common—the Treatment Plant, the General Collection and the Groundwater Discharge systems. Fairness suggests that property owners who have direct access to shared utility components should help to pay for them.

But right away, a number of glitches pop out regarding board policies.

First, for an indeterminate number of years only Phase 1 will be able to use and benefit from the uphill collection, treatment and discharge systems. Only the Phase 1 collection system will be immediately attached, so only Phase 1 can and will derive benefits from the system.

What justification is there for the general manager and board to expect property owners in Phases 2, 3, and 4 to pay debt service on components they clearly have no access to?

Second, I can find no cost projections in those disorganized budget sheets that indicate estimated cost projections for collection systems for Phases 2, 3 or 4. Of course I know why they are not there. In all this time, the general manager and board have not bothered to have any engineering studies or designs made for them.

The board has collected funds—for decades as noted in a memo regarding bonding last year— which could have paid for plenty of studies as well as design documents. The extent of the board’s thinking seems to be that owners in Phases 2, 3, and 4 don’t have any need to know what additional expenses lie ahead or what problems might arise if conditions in those phases had been researched.

When questioned, the board has offered up many rationalizations about the absence of information on Phases 2, 3, and 4. No point in spending that money if the sewer doesn’t pass—although we already said we didn’t want it. We won’t know the costs until we get there—although inflation-adjusted projections are produced all the time. It will look better with the grants we will get every two years—where are these men’s heads? Projected, inflation-adjusted estimates are essential to permit property owners to make sane decisions about a possible sewer project.

A lot of the readable sheet is in place. I have the seven logical components laid out and partially filled with data. I have measured likely main line and the service line (they run from the buildings to the main lines) distances using Montana Cadastral.

Reasonably measured lengths for sewer main lines: Phase 1 >3.816 miles; Phase 2 >2.691 miles; Phase 3 >3.756 miles and Phase 4 >2.247 miles. Lengths for service lines: Phase 1 >5.064 miles; Phase 2 >5.915 miles; Phase 3 >9.649 miles and Phase 4 >1.522 miles.

I hoped to compute an estimated cost per lot for collection but with the trunk, main and service line figures for the uphill collection system and the Phase 1 collection system clumped together on the only available budget, it won’t work.

Third, the board is adding insult to injury by saying that they are giving Phase 1 owners more influence in determining whether the proposed sewer system is passed. Interesting that four board members live and own properties in that phase, isn’t it? One board member owns or controls more than 20 properties.

The bottom line is that I have no more confidence in the financial aspects for this proposed sewer project than I have in the claim of urgent need for a sewer or in the capacity of the board to manage it at any stage of the game.

 

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