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Looking Behind the Scenes: Wastewater treatment — spend more now or later?

By: Jim Ruffalo
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Tuesday night’s Auburn City Council meeting should be about nothing more than simple economics. The question should be is it fiscally wiser to spend a couple of million bucks to re-do the local wastewater treatment plant, or shoot the bundle and hook up with Lincoln’s so-called Super Sewer. Unfortunately, there’ll be an election in a few months, with the possibility of at least three current city planning commissioners believing they’ll make good councilmembers. That reality means the decision-making process now will also be laced with local politics. And seeing as how some council members would love to be re-elected, that political process will be as important — if not more so — than the economic one. City Manager Bob Richardson will have given the council an outline of the choices, and what each means. That recommendation assuredly takes into account Public Works Director Jack Warren’s estimates of up to $95 per month per household to upgrade the city’s local plant, and a monthly figure of about $125 extra should Auburn choose Lincoln. We’ve not seen the recommendations, but doubtlessly they’ll point out that while — on paper — the Lincoln route is more expensive, it could be cheaper in the long run to go regional. Sticking with the local plant is about six times cheaper that throwing in with Lincoln. However, down the line, when regulations again flow downhill like untreated sewage, who can say what it will cost a small village to keep up with the process. The smart choice would be to hook up with Lincoln, because joining with a regional effort helps defray future costs, despite placing an astronomical economic hit on local ratepayers immediately. The council members are smart enough not to blurt this out in public, but it could be said straightfacedly that if this were not an election year, the decision would be to hook up with the Lincoln plant. If the council wants to qualify for the next edition of Profiles in Courage, it will vote for the Lincoln hook-up. On the other hand, those members will have much more time to read that new edition of Profiles because their presence will no longer be required at City Council meetings.  So, will the majority of the council vote to head to Lincoln? Don’t bet on it! One thing bothering the council is the price tag to join with Lincoln, with some estimates running more than $80 million, while the guestimate for improving the local operation runs about 2 million bucks. Mayor Keith Nesbitt, himself up for re-election, takes proper notice that the city just finished hiking local sewer rates and, combining that with gasoline prices defying gravity, he says, “this is not the time to ask local resident to pay even more money” for those services. He says that after looking at all of the reports, one conclusion jumps out at you and that’s “regionalization.” But the mayor wasted no time in adding that Auburn residents (and voters, for that matter) are in little position to accept higher fees in the midst of what some claim is the onset of a recession. At Tuesday morning’s Meddlers meeting, Councilman Mike Holmes allowed that the better choice was going with Lincoln, but that the council also had “to consider is the overall cost to the people of Auburn.” Fellow councilman Bob Snyder was also at that gathering, and says that another concern has to be what I’ll call “weird science.” Snyder properly pointed out that just about anytime an entity gets done upgrading its wastewater treatment system, either the feds or state institute a whole new set of regulations based solely upon the science du jour. Former Mayor Cheryl Maki, who occupies a seat on the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, has for several months steadfastly defended it, claiming that while “kinder and gentler” might not be an official definition of the board and staff, things have been headed in that direction as of late. As proof, Maki points to a recent CVRWQCB decision granting Auburn additional time — without fines and penalties — to make its decision of whether to stay local or head west. Councilwoman Bridgit Powers sees another problem, namely how to fund whichever choice is made. She correctly recalls that Congress earlier approved funding for such local projects, but conveniently forgot to send the money. Snyder, who has already said he will not run again, insists that the final decision be made on ”what’s best for the rate payers.” His obvious implication was perhaps it’s best to pay the big bucks now, rather than pay even bigger bucks at a later date. He told the Meddlers that regionalization protects the city system against any changes in requirements set by the state and feds. Whatever Auburn votes to do — and we’re betting that it will opt to upgrade its local system — it must be in full compliance by 2013. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. He can be reached at jmruffalo@yahoo.com, or comment at auburnjournal.com.