Our View - Citizens must know how sewer decision will affect them

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Local government needs to do much more to inform citizens about the looming wastewater treatment options, which will be costly, no matter which direction is taken. State and federal mandates require foothill communities to meet state water quality guidelines by 2010. The clock is ticking. The fines for not making the mandated deadline could be huge — hundreds of thousands annually. Placer County, including the cities of Auburn, Colfax and other foothill communities, must upgrade existing wastewater treatment plants or invest tens of millions to hook up to a regional facility in Lincoln. In Auburn, fees went up to $52.50 per dwelling unit in June. Those fees could be raised to more than $100 per month, according to some estimates, if the city were to hook up to a regional pipeline and ship its waste to Lincoln. The estimated cost for Auburn to hook up to Lincoln is around $53 million. But looking long-term, that might be the smartest option and save millions of taxpayer dollars over the long run. The alternative, investing in upgrading Auburn’s existing plant, would cost $12 million. But, with ever-tightening state and federal water quality guidelines, that might not be anywhere near the end of government mandates and the costs could further skyrocket in the future. Here's what some area officials have said about the looming crisis. “Though it is going to be painful, the regional approach is our best option.” — Jim Holmes, Placer County supervisor. “I think we need to have a fair hearing on the regional option. Only a fair hearing will produce the best- and least-cost option for residents in the future. And that's why I get frustrated and agitated — this is probably the biggest decision the council will make in the next 15 years.” — Bob Snyder, Auburn City councilman. “There’s a substantial amount of money the city has to come up with in order to be in compliance with regulations mandated by state and regional water boards.” — Joan Phillipe, Colfax city manager. How much does Colfax need to meet its mandates? Phillipe says Colfax needs to spend $16 million for construction costs associated with a new plant and upgrades to aging infrastructure. Residents need to understand the seriousness of the situation. It got so personal in Colfax that the mayor, Jim Albright, and Councilwoman Sharon Gieras resigned recently. At an Auburn City Council meeting, Public Works Director Jack Warren and Councilman Snyder became embroiled in a heated exchange. Snyder was right when he said we need more public hearings on the potential expense and benefits of a regional wastewater treatment plant. The challenges are much more complicated than can be outlined here. But clearly, this much is known: Foothill communities and Placer County itself are facing huge decisions now that will affect us all for decades. These decisions will be expensive. Seniors and others on fixed incomes may need subsidies or fee assistance, and government leaders need to recognize this. Local government needs to do a much better job informing the citizenry about what's at stake. Now is the time for public town hall meetings, for those seeking elected office to weigh-in and for duly elected officials, and the general public, to ask questions and offer solutions as well. Congressman John Doolittle, R-Roseville, has helped facilitate the discussion on this issue for several years. In seeking his seat, candidates Charlie Brown and Tom McClintock have to take a similar leadership role to move the dialogue forward. It would be wise to remember that we are in this together. And our best chance of finding the right solutions to our wastewater treatment challenges is by working together. That work, however, must be done in full view of the public eye.