September 4, 2004 in Voices

Sewer slowdown

By The Spokesman-Review
 

In Mike Bailey’s neighborhood east of Felts Field, summer has been anything but quiet. In fact, it’s been earth moving. Bulldozers and road graders roll down a grid of ripped up roads that extend for almost 12 blocks. The metallic moan of hydraulic buckets scraping against boulders buried deep in the ground is endless. And every now and then, a vibrating steamroller rattles the retired military man’s windowpanes. Bailey’s home is one of 1,700 that will have public sewer access by the end of October. “It’s just fun to watch them,” said Bailey who is enjoying the action, but dreading the $7,000 in sewer costs he’ll have to pay in the next year. “They’re so efficient.”

Private contractors working for Spokane County have been laying pipe down Spokane Valley streets at a blistering pace for more than a decade now, driven by the concern about septic tanks located above the community’s drinking water source, the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

There were more than 35,000 septic tanks above the aquifer when the project began. Now roughly 21,000 tanks remain. The project is on track to winnow the number of septic tanks to 6,000 by 2010, five years ahead of schedule.

However, Spokane Valley appears to be headed for a major slowdown. Funding for the project is drying up, and the community’s ability to treat sewage from new customers is diminishing. Utility officials are considering pushing the deadline back to 2015, a welcome delay for hundreds of Spokane Valley homeowners ill prepared for hefty sewer bills, but an unwelcome one for the region’s water supply.

“Right now, we’re actually assessing how much more we can do,” said Bruce Rawls, Spokane County utilities director. “We’re scheduled to install our last sewer system in 2010, but that’s probably not going to happen for several reasons.”

The main reason for applying the brakes to the project is money. Spokane County has been spending roughly $12 million a year to hook up Spokane Valley and a smaller county area north of Spokane to sewer. In the past, roughly $3 million of that money came from a small percentage of sales taxes collected in Spokane Valley, Rawls said, as well as a similar amount collected through sales taxes and contributed by Spokane County. Another $2 million is paid for by a special aquifer protection area fee. Additional money comes in the form of state and federal grants.

Sewer funding took a hit roughly 18 months ago when the newly incorporated city of Spokane Valley decided it would no longer contribute a portion of its sales taxes to the project. Months after Spokane Valley reneged, the county followed suit, cutting its longtime sewer hookup subsidy for new homes from $625 to $315. The subsidy ends entirely next year.

And the aquifer protection fee will soon expire. Voters will decide whether to continue the fee in the November general election.

Governments big and small are battling with tight budgets as tax revenues drop because of an economic slump. It’s understandable that money dedicated to the sewer project would be spent on other things, Rawls said.

Also, sewer lines laid across the Valley by Spokane County in the last 14 years lead to the city of Spokane’s wastewater treatment plant. New customers are hooking up so fast, the treatment plant will likely reach capacity by 2009 at the current pace, Rawls said.

Another treatment plant is needed, one that will likely be shared by Spokane Valley and the county, but getting the new plant built before the current plant runs out of room is going to be difficult.

On the customer side of the equation, raising money for the sewer seems no easier. Neighborhoods like Bailey’s have many residents who are senior citizens living on fixed incomes. For them, coming up with the roughly $7,000 in sewer costs is daunting. County officials give residents roughly a year to connect once the sewer line is deemed hookup worthy. Many people defer hookup until they absolutely have to.

“In my neighborhood, I would say many of the people will wait for the deadline. There are a lot of elderly people with fixed incomes,” said Mike Orrino, a neighbor of Bailey’s and a sewer contractor. “The county does have a great loan program to hook them up. It’s an interest-free loan.”

Orrino, who owns Acme Excavating, had offered neighbors on his street a lower than average group hookup rate. Actually connecting a home to the newly installed sewer line costs between $1,800 and $2,800, depending on the job, Orrino said.

The hookup fee is in addition to the $5,050 homeowners must pay once the sewer line runs in front of their home, regardless of whether they’ve hooked up. The $5,050 can be paid up front or spread over several years.

Based on neighborhoods he’s connected, Orrino said usually a third of neighbors with sewer available hook up right away, an equal portion will wait until the following summer, and the remainder will struggle.

Rawls said sewer hookups have gone well so far, though he still sends out roughly 20 or 30 warning letters monthly.

Meanwhile, Bailey has decided to hook up next spring. A new bond was recently added to neighborhood tax rolls for West Valley School District. The community is also opening its collective wallet for increased fire protection costs. The sewer will wait. The other two issues will not.


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