Costs cloud future of sewer plan

As the Bainbridge City Council decides whether to spend $500,000 to help build sewers in four south-end neighborhoods, new cost estimates are creating new doubts about the plan.

“It feels like two steps forward, one step back,” said Charles Hawk of Rockaway Beach, an advocate for the sewer extension. “But we will keep working to bring down those costs any way we can.”

Hawk and representatives from north Pleasant Beach, Point White and Emerald Heights are proposing a plan under which the city would contribute $500,000 to building the basic infrastructure needed to connect the neighborhoods to the Fort Ward sewer treatment plant operated by Kitsap County Sewer District No. 7.

The plan calls for the city to be repaid by collecting hookup fees from property near but not within the boundaries of the proposed Local Improvement Districts.

“Under county health rules, properties within 200 feet of a sewer line have to hook up when a new home is built or when the existing septic system fails,” Hawk said.

“We assume that when those properties hook up, the city will impose a charge. It will benefit from the sewer lines that we are paying to install, so we think it should share the costs.”

Sewer proponents have identified 92 properties that would be affected. At a cost of $10,000 per hookup, Hawk said, the city would recoup both the $500,000 and the carrying costs of advancing that sum.

At the request of the council’s public works committee, the neighborhoods negotiated how the $500,000 would be divided in a way that gives a disproportionate benefit to Emerald Heights, where average home values are far less than those of the three waterfront neighborhoods.

But the plan runs afoul of three criteria for the sewer extension that the council has already imposed, said Norm Wooldridge, committee chair.

“The first was that the participants would pay for everything, and until recently, they have always insisted that would be the case,” Wooldridge said.

“The second was that only those homeowners that needed or wanted sewer service would have to hook up. And the third is that, with the exception of Emerald Heights, only those homes waterward of the sewer lines would be able to connect.”

The plan on the table involves a public subsidy, Wooldridge said, which conflicts with the user-pay standard, and envisions expanding the boundaries of the service area, which conflicts with another.

Wooldridge believes the plan has a chance, although he stressed that he has not talked with any other council members about it.

“I personally think they may have made a pretty good case for the $500,000,” he said.

But the newest estimates from the city’s consulting engineers are pushing prices into ranges that the affected neighborhoods have said may be prohibitive.

Using the new numbers from consultants Berryman and Henigar, total costs would range from $27,677 in Emerald Heights to almost $26,000 in Pleasant Beach – even with the requested $500,000.

“You had previously said that $30,000 per home was an impossible amount,” Wooldridge told a representative from Emerald Heights at Monday’s meeting. “In light of that, how can $28,000 work?”

The financing plan calls for the city to form a Local Improvement District, sell bonds to pay for construction of the sewer lines and connecting equipment, then look to property owners within the LID to repay the bonds. Owners would have the choice of paying up front, or being assessed over a period of time – frequently 20 years – at a relatively low interest rate.

Owners within the geographic boundaries of the LID would not have to hook into the system immediately. Those who did not hook up would have to pay the so-called “shared costs” of installing the line, the presence of which would enhance their property value, but would not have to pay the “on-site” costs of connecting their home to the main line.

The picture is further clouded by a written resolution from KCSD7 that it will make available an additional 250 sewer hookups to serve the four neighborhoods only if it receives $1.5 million up front – $6,000 per connection – which it says is needed to improve its facility enough to handle the additional connections.

No one at Monday’s public works committee meeting could suggest where that money would come from, and no representatives of the three-person sewer district board attended the meeting.

Hawk questioned whether the requirement was cast in concrete.

“I heard the sewer district say that if they received an iron-clad promise from the city that they would get the money when they actually need to do the construction work, that they don’t need all the money up front,” he said.

The neighbors requesting sewer service have been assuming that connection charges would be paid by each property owner if and when they actually hook up.

But city attorney Rod Kaseguma suggested last week that if the connecting fees have to be paid up front, that amount would have to be raised through bond sales, which would mean, in turn, that all properties within the LID would be assessed whether they hook up or not.

The city intends to form the LID by council resolution, which can be overturned if 60 percent of the property owners within the defined boundaries protest. Although only one LID will be formed, the city plans to remove from the plan any neighborhood where 60 percent of the owners protest.

Wooldridge said he expects the council to go ahead with the LID formation process, but neither he nor the neighbors could predict the outcome.

“I think it’s about 50-50 in Emerald Heights,” said resident Bernie Reynolds.

Hawk said he did not think 60 percent of the Rockaway Beach residents would oppose the sewers, but the outcome depends on the final costs, he said.

If the LID is not formed, Wooldridge said, other solutions will have to be found.

“I get the sense that there are a few properties in each neighborhood that are causing pollution either to their neighbors or into the sound, and the health district has been looking the other way” while the sewer-formation process is going on.

“But that will stop,” Woodridge said. “If there is no sewer, those folks will have to install special septic systems, which can be expensive, or they will not be able to stay in their houses.”

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