Opinion

What's left to debate on sewers?

The obvious metaphor would be “wading into a cesspool.” Undaunted, or at least amply girded with hip waders, we hereby slosh forward on the issue of south-end sewers.

We’re pleased to report that the Bainbridge City Council took a step forward this week in approving a $120,000 contract for preliminary engineering work on sewers for Emerald Heights, Rockaway Beach, Pleasant Beach and Point White. But the council once again punted on the volatile issue of whether all folks within the geographic service areas must help pay the costs to lay the lines.

A primer: Total sewer cost consists of three components. First, there is the fixed sum of money required to install a sewer line to a certain area – say for example, along Rockaway Beach. Then comes the cost to each homeowner required to connect that house to the line. Finally, there is the connection charge paid to Kitsap County Sewer District 7, the entity that owns the Fort Ward sewage treatment plant, to reimburse the district for its plant construction costs.

The ongoing “who should pay” debate revolves around which costs, if any, should be shared by those within the area to be served by sewer, but who have working septic systems and don’t want to hook up.

As most concede, those residents need not pay connection or hookup costs until they do want to connect. But what about the installation costs? Is it fair to make folks pay for a “benefit” they don’t want? Conversely, is it fair to put the cost only on those who want service now, even though everyone will gain from sewer availability?

If we were starting from scratch to create a brand-new world, this would be a question worth considerable debate. But we’re not. As the city attorney told the council this week, the law on the subject is clear – everyone within the geographic area pays for the capital costs. And state law also specifies the percentage of property owners who must agree in order to bring their neighbors along for the ride.

State law is not an arbitrary pronouncement. It represents the considered judgment of the legislature, whose job it is to weigh competing claims of fairness – in this case, setting what are now long-established procedures for forming and assessing Local Improvement Districts. Bainbridge is subject to state law; the policy issue in question has already been decided.

While one may or may not agree with the wisdom of sewering the south end, four neighborhoods have, by way of petition, expressed their desire to have such service brought to their areas. And like it or not, LIDs are “one for all, all for one” propositions. There is a failsafe; after LID boundaries are defined – and cost projections refined – the neighborhoods calling for service can back out. If property owners decide costs will be too high, they can lodge protests with the city; 60 percent “no” will sink the project.

Today, the estimated share of construction costs are in the neighborhood of $8,000 per property, payable over 20 years. Is that fair? As all septic systems will fail at some point, we suggest that the question isn’t whether everyone in a neighborhood will hook up, but when.

As several council members note, the previous council made commitments to the neighborhoods, and the law says what must be done to fulfill those commitments.

Isn’t it time to climb out and shed the waders?

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