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Dispute looms over Bainbridge city sewer bonds

The city’s wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) is more than halfway completed.

But a potential lawsuit could leave a stink in the air and stall funding for the project.

Legal action has been threatened over a $6 million sewer bond by a group calling itself the Bainbridge Ratepayers Alliance.

In a letter released this week, Attorney Richard Stephens stated that “the Bainbridge Ratepayers Alliance intends to seek appropriate legal recourse if the city proceeds with approving the bonds.”

The group is concerned about the cost of the WWTP, the distribution of the bond debt burden on downtown residents and the use of utility funds to pay for small portions of city staff salaries.

“I think they are taking us very seriously,” said Sally Adams of BRA. “You can’t be foisting enormous debt burdens without letting (ratepayers) know what that debt burden is going to be on them individually.”

The potential legal action seems to have struck a chord as council members discussed alternatives to the utility bond during Wednesday’s council meeting.

“I’m debating whether we can issue a bond with a pending legal challenge,” said council member Barry Peters.

Although the legal action wouldn’t necessarily stop the bond from being issued, said City Administrator Mark Dombroski, it could turn away potential investors. In the interim, council members are likely to approve a bond-anticipation note to pay for ongoing WWTP expenses, essentially a line of credit the city can draw from.

But members of BRA believe the entire project should be stopped and reevaluated.

“The city has to stop, take a breath and do an assessment of the entire project,” Adams said. “We need to look at what we’ve got here, put a few dollars into that and get the books straight.”

Those sentiments were echoed by three council members, who showed interest in finding out what it would cost to upgrade the WWTP to a high-quality tertiary treatment facility.

“I am a little perplexed on the confusing signals we’re getting,” Dombroski said. “On one hand they want to stop a project. Others want to do tertiary treatment and they don’t want to complete the current project.”

The BRA and some council members have complained about the ballooning cost of the WWTP, which they believe started as a $6 million project.

However, according to a Public Works Department presentation made to the council in November 2005, the WWTP was estimated to cost roughly $9.5 million in construction contracts and an additional 25 percent for design and permitting costs.

Council approved the project based on those assumptions. It is currently estimated that the WWTP will cost $15.6 million with completion slated for early 2010.

Council members were also given the option of high-quality tertiary treatment in 2005, which was declined due to the cost of the technology.

There is a danger that delaying the project could open the city up to more litigation – the project is under contract, and sewage is not meeting environmental standards.

The city is now stuck between two potential lawsuits and an incomplete sewer facility for the downtown population.

Adams said there is still room for dialogue between the BRA and the city, the first step being the creation of a citizen utility advisory committee. That board would serve to make recommendations on projects and rates.

While it is a positive first step, some council members warn that delays will only inflate costs for ratepayers.

“Threats of litigation and requests to delay or postpone the project will only cost the sewer ratepayers more,” Peters said.

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