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Our View: Sewer plan needs a plan – in writing

Our View
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At its most recent meeting last week, the Placer County Board of Supervisors discussed the regional wastewater treatment proposal that’s been in the works for the past decade. The plan, so to speak, is to connect ratepayers in North Auburn and Auburn to a sewer plant in Lincoln. The idea is by using one regional plant, it will be easier for the communities to upgrade and meet ever-changing and expensive state standards all at once. The idea is a strong one in theory and is a good plan for the future economic health of the region. However, the execution or lack thereof, has been poor and has yet to convince ratepayers why they should sign on for a $73 million project that will greatly increase the monthly sewer bills for Auburn area residents. The Placer County Board of Supervisors needs to take the lead and create a proposal and legal contracts for itself, the city of Lincoln and the city of Auburn to review and then sign if all agree with the plan. Currently the supervisors have agreed to an environmental review process and last week OK’d $6 million to go toward a separate design review process the city of Lincoln will lead. Supervisors also agreed to have staff start to work on a Construction and Initial Operation Agreement. That agreement will be based on a deal proposed by Lincoln and will make formal the agreement among the city of Lincoln, the county and city of Auburn, should it opt in. Understanding there needs to be an agreement is a great step. However, an agreement on a regional project needs area input. The county and city, if they decide to be a part of it, need to provide their input and solicit feedback from ratepayers to make sure the COIA reflects what’s fair and right to taxpayers impacted by a regional plan. Already there seems to be a disconnect between the city of Lincoln and the county over who pays what. At Tuesday’s meeting Lincoln officials said the county owes their city $129,000 for delays. Supervisors were concerned over that amount, the request and who gets to determine what’s a delay and who’s responsible. They should be concerned and take that funding request as a warning sign and an alert to be more heavily involved with the process. Lincoln is sitting pretty in that it’s not planning to pay any of the $73 million and is planning to keep the $32.08 a month rate the same or lower for its residents. So are its leaders really going to craft an agreement that reflects the concerns of Auburn customers who could be paying up to $76 and $91 a month depending on if they are in the county or city limits? Another disconcerting message from Lincoln came when its mayor, Spencer Short, suggested it was a partnership and not a contract with the city of Lincoln and county when it came to control, day-to-day operations and liability. Supervisor and Board Chairwoman Jennifer Montgomery rightfully said there needs to be a contract. A formal agreement was also what the city of Auburn was looking for last week but walked away empty handed from the Board of Supervisors meeting. But not first without taking a few pointed and heated comments from Supervisor Kirk Uhler who seemed critical when saying “The city of Auburn seems more than happy to partner if somebody else is going to pay for them to get in.” Well, would you want to sign on to pay $27 million without a legal contract or even a plan in writing to review? Most likely not, so, it’s understandable the city of Auburn hasn’t fully jumped onto the regional wastewater bandwagon just yet. Not only is it understandable – it’s prudent and responsible on behalf of the taxpayers they represent. A separate option is to contract with a private company to manage and maintain the county’s current wastewater plant and take it out of the hands of local government. Privatizing wastewater treatment as Uhler suggests leaves a lot of room for question. The rates would be lower than current ones and locked in for 10 years and then up for renegotiation after that, Uhler said. Well, where is that promise in writing? And, after 10 years, what will be considered a reasonable rate increase? Will there be a cap on how much a private company can charge ratepayers? Or will residents end up at the mercy of that private company much like many are at the mercy of a giant public utility? If our elected leaders want to move to a regional plan, then they need to create that regional plan and put it in writing for all interested parties to carefully review and then sign. Exact terms of governance, who decides rates, who pays for upgrades, who’s liable for what and more are integral parts of any sound business decision. The county’s Board of Supervisors are in the best position to take the helm and work with the interested parties to make the plan a reality for the ultimate benefit of taxpayers.