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South-end sewers get needed funding

After two hours of sometimes heated discussion, the Bainbridge City Council Wednesday took another small step towards permitting sewers to go into four south-end neighborhoods.

The council approved a $120,000 consulting contract for preliminary engineering work. But the issue that prompted a vocal debate – exactly who should pay – was reserved for another day, and will be revisited after the study is done.

“It will be easier to talk about the cost issues when we have a better idea of what the costs actually are,” council chair Michael Pollock said.

Charles Hawk of Rockaway Beach, one of the four neighborhoods seeking sewer connections, described the decision as “one step at a time.”

“From the community standpoint, we’re very pleased,” Hawk said. “They did what we wanted them to do – approve the contract without guarantees.”

The city is considering forming Local Improvement Districts in four south-end neighborhoods to install sewers that would be connected to the Fort Ward treatment plant owned and operated by Kitsap County Consolidated Sewer District No. 7.

Under an LID plan, the city would sell bonds to pay the cost of sewer installation, then assess property within the LID, whose owners could either pay cash up front or pay over a 20-year period at the favorable interest rate available to municipalities.

The neighborhoods involved are Emerald Heights and the water sides of Rockaway Beach, Point White Drive and upper Pleasant Beach. Blakely Elementary School is also a sewer-hookup candidate.

The “who should pay” debate involved only those properties within the geographic boundaries of the LID – everyone agreed that general taxpayers outside the LID boundaries will pay nothing.

To guarantee that provision, some council members had wanted someone from each of the neighborhoods to guarantee repayment of the consulting contract cost for fear that if the LIDs fell through, the taxpayers would get stuck with that cost.

But the guarantee provision was removed Wednesday. If any neighborhood backs out, the remaining neighborhoods will have to absorb the consulting costs.

Purpose of the contract is to ascertain the possible LID boundaries and the costs more precisely, which in turn will furnish more information to resolve the “who should pay” issue.

For those within the LID boundaries who have a well-functioning septic system and do not want to hook into the sewer line, the choices are two.

One option would be to charge those properties nothing up-front, then charge them a full share of construction costs if and when they decided to hook up later.

That approach was favored by council members Norm Wooldridge and Michael Pollock.

“We have said from day one that only those who want service will pay,” said Wooldridge, the only council member to vote against proceeding with the consulting contract.

To Pollock, affordability was an issue.

“The added cost of sewer makes those properties less affordable,” he said. “I’m not sure we want to go in that direction.”

The other option is to charge everyone a share of the cost of construction, then letting those who did not want the service up-front delay actually connecting, and paying the cost of doing so, until they wanted the service.

“If a sewer line is put into a neighborhood, everyone’s property values go up,” said Deborah Vancil. And she questioned whether affordability was a genuine issue in the three waterfront neighborhoods.

The issue has significant practical implications. If properties within a service area are able to “opt out,” and pay none of the construction costs, the costs to the other properties increase. Some sewer advocates say that if “opt out” is permitted, the costs will rise so high that the projects will become infeasible.

Bill Cairns, the neighborhood representative for Point White, estimates that the per-property costs if everyone along the road contributes is roughly $8,000 for the main sewer line and the installation work. Actual connection will cost around $14,000 per property, he said.

But if fewer than all the properties participate, the costs rise dramatically.

“When we got up to $50,000 per property, it became infeasible,” he said.

Cairns said the $8,000 per property is a good deal even for those who don’t hook up now.

“It’s really an insurance policy against future septic failures, because if something goes wrong with the septic system, you don’t have to rip the place up to repair it,” he said.

City Attorney Rod Kaseguma said the question is pretty cut-and-dried as a legal matter.

“You can’t charge some people within an LID and not others,” he said. “If you leave those who don’t want service out of the LID, you create a checkerboard or piano-key pattern. Districts like that are presumptively invalid, meaning that if anyone appealed, a court would probably throw them out.”

While districts in which all properties were assessed for construction costs could be appealed, “we would have a very good case,” Kaseguma said.

Deborah Vann saw the issue as one of honoring prior commitments to the four affected neighborhoods.

“The city government approved this, and didn’t add a lot of new criteria,” she said. “This is not the place to write the book on who should be allowed to have service. Our city government has the obligation to go forward and it’s time to go ahead and have a decision made.”

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