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Council agrees to sewer subsidy

To preserve a viable and affordable neighborhood, the Bainbridge City Council agreed Monday that the city should pay some of the cost of running a sewer line from Emerald Heights towards the Fort Ward sewer treatment plant.

That decision, along with some other minor trimming, will cut almost $5,000 from the cost to each home of installing a sewer system to deal with the persistent septic failures experienced in that south-end neighborhood.

“This is a big help,” said Kirsten Hytopoulos, Emerald Heights representative on a neighborhood steering committee. “I think the council has done what it could do.”

The council met Monday to consider an array of ways to reduce the per-home sewer costs in four south-end neighborhoods, currently estimated at over $30,000.

The most significant proposal was that the city pay the cost of running a sewer line from Emerald Way down Lynwood Center Road to Lynwood Center, where it will connect with an existing pipe to Fort Ward.

That cost – $188,000 for a pump-system line or $395,000 for a larger gravity-system line – was the principal reason that per-home costs were higher for the modest-income Emerald Heights than for the three beachfront neighborhoods seeking sewer service.

The rationale for city participation was that sewer installation does provide a public-health benefit to the community, as opposed to failing septic systems, and that at some point, other property owners along the way will want to hook up, for which the city could levy a charge.

What prevailed, though, was the threat to the neighborhood.

“If we don’t get sewer to them, the whole viability of that neighborhood is in question,” said south-end councilwoman Christine Nasser Rolfes. “One function of government is to protect property.”

Council member Norm Wooldridge said Emerald Heights is something of a special case.

“One of our high community values is to preserve affordable housing, and that alone justifies our participation,” Wooldridge said.

The council decided to pay the cost of a pump-system line, even though many in the neighborhood prefer a gravity system, which they believe requires less maintenance.

“I’m not suggesting that they can’t have a gravity line,” Wooldridge said, “but since the other neighborhoods are going to be on pumps, I think the city should only pay for that kind of system, and if they want the other, they should pay.”

Council member Deborah Vann agreed, but wanted the rationale reduced to writing.

“I think we should document the criteria we are using in making this decision,” she said, “so we will have some answers in the future if other neighborhoods come in and say ‘you did this for them, why can’t you do it for us?’”

That decision principally benefits Emerald Heights to the tune of $4,165 per household, but also lops some $17,600 off the cost to Blakely School, which wants to tap into the sewer system.

The council also agreed not to charge the neighborhoods for the $150,000 cost of the 2000 preliminary sewer plan, which included the whole south end of the island. Excluding that cost cuts the per-home price in all four of the neighborhoods by $750 each.

The neighborhoods have asked for sewers to alleviate septic failures caused by a combination of adverse subsurface conditions, small lots and proximity to Puget Sound.

Plans are to form Local Improvement Districts in each area, which will level assessments on each property to repay the costs of installing the systems. If 60 percent of owners in any neighborhood protest, the area will be excluded from the LID.

Whether the sewer plan goes forward may now depend on whether the city can obtain an ultra-low-interest loan from the state’s Public Works Trust Fund, which would be repaid at 1 percent interest – half a percent to the fund and half to the city as an administrative fee.

If that loan is awarded – the application was mailed Monday – the initial annual payment on a $30,000 system would be $1,800, compared to almost $4,000 required to repay bonds with an estimated interest rate of 6.5 percent.

The council indicated that formal hearings on forming the LIDs will be deferred until after word comes back on whether the city received the PWTF loan.

But the city will forge ahead with some engineering work that could delay the project beyond the 2004 construction season.

Point White representative Bill Cairns praised the council’s efforts to help Emerald Heights, but said it did little for his neighborhood. With the per-home price exceeding $30,000, he said the PWTF money is the key.

“Without it, we’re dead. With it, there’s a chance,” he said.

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