By Michael Howell
The Town of Stevensville took a good look at its ongoing water and sewer projects as well as a peek into the future at a Committee of the Whole meeting last week The town has initiated massive and costly improvements to both the water and sewer systems that have driven the cost of the utilities up and promises to take them even higher. Not only that, there are costs looming in terms of infrastructure replacement needs that may require even more money to be generated by the public works. By law the town’s utilities are run on separate funds from the general account and must pay for themselves as they go.
Donny Ramer of Professional Consultants Inc. (PCI) gave the council a summation of the ongoing water project started in 2010. He said it began when the water treatment plant, located up the Burnt Fork drainage a few miles from town, was deemed out of compliance with new regulations promulgated by the Department of Environmental Quality with new standards for surface water used for drinking. The system also suffered from extreme water loss, lack of necessary fire flows and uneven water pressure throughout the town.
The solution recommended by the engineering company was to abandon the sand filtered, gravity flow, surface water system and develop a well-field in town. The whole project cost was estimated at $4.69 million. About half of it is funded through federal and state grants. The other half, about $2.17 million, is being carried as debt. That debt must be covered by the revenues generated by the system.
The water loss in the system is significant. Almost two thirds of the water being generated at the current water works is being lost through leakage. The metering system installed last year as part of Phase 2 of the project now gives the town a hard number for the gallons of water being used and it appears the system is leaking massively. It appears the system is only getting about one third of the water it produces to the water users. Two thirds, from 6 to 7 million gallons per month, is being wasted through leaks that are difficult to locate. But over 85% of the town’s water lines are more than 50 years old and made of cast iron. Ramer said because of the leaded joints in the cast iron pipe system there could be significant leaks every twenty feet along the pipe.
The cost of a replacement program was one thing that might drive rates even higher. The town is putting away $60,000 per year in a reserve fund for replacement work as part of its program but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the real costs facing the town with such an old system. It was estimated that those costs are about $80 to $100 per foot and the town is looking at a 16-mile long system. To replace 10% of the system a year would cost about $150,000 annually.
“The bottom line is we are currently only fixing a small part of the system,” said Council member Bill Perrin.
The estimated cost of running the water system was $195,000 annually. The debt service is estimated at about $178,349 annually. Together the debt service and operating costs total over $373,000 annually.
There was some discussion about the potential need to raise the rates to meet some of the costs that continually rise related to the cost of living and to help pay for a replacement program. There are about 780 connections totaling about 906 equivalent development units.
John Weikel from Montana Rural Water Systems said that until the town reaches the point that it needs to install a new storage tank, which was figured into the project, that money might be available to do some of the needed replacement work. But that storage capacity will be needed at some point, he said.
Some members of the public complained about the high water rates, but Weikel said that compared to other towns and cities around the state Stevensville’s current water rates were “about average.”
He said not only were the rates fairly in line with the rest of the state, the current system was looking good financially. He said right now the revenues from the system were exceeding the expenses.
Mayor Gene Mim Mack noted that the original rate hike of 40%, implemented when the project first started, was a shock to everyone. As a result the town did not implement the next scheduled hike of 30%. The project was then restructured to lower the costs and the minimal rate hikes of 3% were implemented.
He noted that for a very long time people were not paying for what the system really cost. He said people had been getting water basically for free and are now in shock over the real cost of delivery. He also noted that the trouble the Town had with unpaid bills, when the first rate hike was implemented, was addressed in a number of ways and appears to be working. He said it appears that people can pay, they were just not used to paying.
A lot of confusion has been generated over the way the water is billed, with the first 3,000 gallons included in the monthly flat fee and a base rate per gallon being applied after that. Weikel said that this way of computing costs was being eliminated throughout the state due to the confusion it generates. He said municipalities are going to a single rate for every gallon used so it is clear to the user how it is being figured.
The council also got a summary of the work going on at the wastewater treatment plant and the sewer main replacements and extensions that are going on as well. This infrastructure improvement project goes back to 2006 and was initiated due to new regulations governing the town’s discharge permit.
The sewer project was also driven by stricter standards in nitrate emissions and the result of it all was a $5.2 million upgrade. The town has spent about $1.4 million so far and is currently lining up the necessary grants and loans to finish out the project.
Like the water system, the sewer system is also ancient and there is no replacement program in place. An estimated cost for full replacement is a staggering $8.2 million. This means that some sort of rate hike is needed to accommodate some sort of replacement program. How much that will be still needs to be determined.
Looking on the bright side, Mim Mack said that the advantage the town hopes to gain by moving forward with the project is that it will exceed nutrient and discharge permit requirements that are on the horizon, possibly freeing up funds in the future to devote to system replacement costs.
“We are going to be one of the best discharge communities to the Bitterroot River in the valley,” said Mim Mack. He said that could give the town some breathing room to focus on fixing up the aging infrastructure.