Jim Ruffalo: Root of all evil, money, clogs regional wastewater project

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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It was all politeness and pro forma at the most recent Placer County Board of Supervisors meeting during the part about the proposed regional sewage treatment plant for Lincoln. However, involved parties spoke a bit plainer at the Technical Advisory Committee meeting held Jan. 31 at Auburn’s City Hall. This is not to suggest that voices were raised — at least not too loudly — nor items tossed at one another. Still, the TAC meeting better demonstrated that not only is there a long way to go before agreement is reached, but also that the City of Lincoln needs to stop trying to force involved parties into an immediate decision, especially when it sometimes appears that the Super Sewer project is a neat way to bolster its general fund. Placer County CEO Tom Miller was at both meetings, and says his feeling is that while the regional concept of sewage treatment is well worth exploring, there’s no reason why everything has to be done yesterday. “Are we ordering steel tomorrow?” was his almost rhetorical comment to the hurry-up approach being taken by Lincoln. At the TAC meeting, Miller reportedly termed the hurry-up approach as “an aggressive time frame,” then proceeded to rip Lincoln’s current claims of costs and necessities needed to bring the project online. It was quieter at the supes’ meeting, although Miller still points out, “There’s not much difference between waiting 12 months or 14 months. This could be the deal of the century, but we better take the time to make sure it’s technically right and legally right.” Miller didn’t say it, but waiting to do it right may also lower the overall costs. After all, the original proposed price given by Lincoln in 2008 was $200 million, but lowered it to $140 million last year. Then on Tuesday, it rolled out a proposed price tag of $92 million. With prices fluctuating like a commodities exchange, Miller becomes even more frustrated. “We’ve yet to hear a fixed price. We need to slow down and come to agreement on the real cost, then prudent people can work out the details,” he said. Estimates for Auburn to upgrade its own plant come in at about $63 million, but let me hasten to add that the city is currently in full compliance and is in the enviable position of take-it-or-leave-it when it comes to dickering with Lincoln. As Auburn Mayor Dr. Bill Kirby says: “Of the three parties involved, we are in the best position. What we really should be talking about is what is best for the rate-payers, not what is best for the City of Lincoln’s (coffers).” That bit of information should end — for all times — Lincoln’s apparent ploy to force the parties into immediate agreement. More than once, the state’s impending June 30 deadline has been bandied about in meetings. That threat should fall on deaf ears at Auburn. As usual, money is the root of the problem, and we all know how bad roots can be for sewer lines. One chunk of proposed money for Auburn and the county to get additional information and a preliminary environmental study really bugs Miller. “Lincoln has already generated documents, but those have been incomplete,” Miller complains, then does even more so when considering that the price tag for getting additional information has been set at $5.8 million. “That’s a lot of money to pay just to go down an exploratory path,” he said. He might have added that $700,000 of that winds up in Lincoln’s pocket, with nearly half of that headed to the city manager’s office. And what does that almost $6 million buy? Apparently a ton of reports and opinions, much of which probably is — or should be — already available. It’s just that doing it this way results in a lot of pretty new covers binding a lot of previously available facts and figures. It seems to me that Auburn and the county are being asked to ante up $5.8 million, just so they can learn the amount of money they’ll eventually be required to bet. “The problem is Lincoln expects a nearly $6 million payment for the right for us to see what it will eventually cost us,” Miller wailed. So much for free estimates! Yes, and a regional sewer plant is a worthwhile idea to explore, especially in light of the way the state manages to invent new and wonderful things that can be demanded from sewage treatment plants. And we all know just how costly those sometimes insipid demands can cost. Or as Mayor Kirby puts it: “There are a lot of questions looking for answers, but the most important answer needs to be what’s best for the rate-payers.” Jim Ruffalo’s column runs on Sunday. Reach him at