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Wastewater treatment bond could bypass voters

City of Lewiston officials are eyeing upgrades estimated at about $28 million for the wastewater treatment plant in North Lewiston. They will discuss the possibility of asking a district judge to approve that amount in bonding authority during a meeting Monday, June 11, 2018. (Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune)
City of Lewiston officials are eyeing upgrades estimated at about $28 million for the wastewater treatment plant in North Lewiston. They will discuss the possibility of asking a district judge to approve that amount in bonding authority during a meeting Monday, June 11, 2018. (Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune)

Faced with a long list of expensive and necessary upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, Lewiston officials could soon ask a district judge to approve $28 million in bonding authority.

The process, known as “judicial confirmation,” essentially sidesteps the ballot box and allows the bonds to be issued without a public vote.

The Lewiston City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed move during its regular council meeting today.

The sewage treatment plant was built in 1958. It has undergone a number of modifications since then, but most of the equipment is at least 30 years old. Given that the plant now handles an average of 3.8 million gallons of effluent per day, officials say the primary and secondary clarifiers, aeration basins and ultraviolet purification process are all at or near capacity.

The plant has suffered several major breakdowns in recent years, including in both of the secondary clarifier tanks, where solids settle out of the effluent, as well as in the aeration basins.

Those events resulted in emergency repairs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because of the lack of redundancy in the system, they also put the city in a position in which another major failure could have resulted in the plant exceeding pollution discharge limits and violating its operating license from the Environmental Protection Agency.

City Manager Alan Nygaard and Public Works Director Chris Davies were not immediately available for comment.

Former City Manager Jim Bennett said the council discussed the possibility of using the judicial confirmation process several times in the past but never acted on it. Bennett wasn’t aware if the city had ever resorted to it.

The Idaho Legislature authorized the process in 1988. Before asking the court for bonding authority, the council must hold a public hearing on the proposal. If it chooses to move forward, the council would then file a petition in district court. A judicial hearing would be scheduled, after which the court would decide whether to grant or deny judicial confirmation.

According to the Association of Idaho Cities, judicial confirmation is typically used in emergency situations when there isn’t time to hold a bond election, or in situations such as Lewiston is facing, where the only choice is to incur an expense or potentially violate federal requirements.

“These are repairs and replacements that have to be done. We don’t have an option to not do it,” said Lewiston City Attorney Jana Gomez.

State law doesn’t require a failed bond election before a city can resort to judicial confirmation. Gomez said that’s probably for good reason.

“It puts the city in an awkward position if voters don’t approve (the bond request),” she said. “They might feel like the city is going against their will or isn’t listening to them, when the reality is there’s no option. We know there are severe consequences for violating (the operating permit), and we’re trying to prevent that.”

A 2016 wastewater master plan estimated that the needed improvements would cost about $27.5 million. That includes installing new primary and secondary clarifiers, updating the water disinfection system and north shore pumping station and replacing aged pipelines.

City engineer Shawn Stubbers said the improvements “are needed to ensure the plant will continue to serve our community for the next 30-plus years.”