Just a few Lewiston, Idaho, residents testified Monday night against the city getting judicial approval to issue bonds for upgrades to its wastewater treatment plant, but they were vocal.
The city is facing tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs at the plant, which has suffered numerous breakdowns over the past several years and threatened to violate its permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Clearwater River.
Debt financing will be required to pay for the project, which has an estimated price tag of about $28 million. Idaho typically requires voters to approve bonds for construction projects, but state law allows a judge to approve the bonds if the work is deemed "immediate and necessary."
Monday's public hearing at the council's regular meeting was a step in the process toward so-called "judicial confirmation" of the construction bonds. City officials are proposing 40 percent increases to wastewater rates to generate the revenue to repay the bonds.
But several people at the hearing criticized the city for not planning ahead for the eventuality, or not doing incremental maintenance over the years that the plant was in decay.
Brian Hensley said the council has been acutely aware of the plant's deficiencies since at least two years ago, when it received a detailed wastewater master plan from a consultant. Hensley said that indicated the council has had plenty of time to put a bond to voters.
"I'm not sure it's an emergency," Hensley said.
He added that the city has been able to deal with past emergencies -- like breakdowns of large blowers or treatment tanks -- on a case-by-case basis.
"It's a very expensive thing, and I'd like to have a vote on it."
Jim Kluss decried another layer of expense possibly being placed on residents who saw steep property tax increases from the Lewiston School District's bond to build a new high school. He acknowledged the dire condition of the plant, but said the council also has to consider the hefty impact on people's monthly bills.
Wayne Wood, who said he lives in the Cougar Ridge area, noted that he moved out of the city because of continued increases in taxes and fees. He agreed with Kluss that the bonds will add to other increased costs of living in Lewiston, and criticized the city for again asking voters to approve a 2 percent increase to Avista's franchise fee to pay for certain transportation projects.
And Wood reminded the council that it also has another multi-million-dollar deferred maintenance issue with its water treatment plant. Another 40 percent increase to water rates will come to the council this year to pay for proposed bonds for that project.
Mark Edelblute said he has watched his wastewater and water rates increase almost every year, and his utility bill now totals between $300 and $400 every month. His bill is so large partly because he owns a couple of parcels that he waters regularly to keep them looking nice.
But the increase in utility rates will compel more residents to abandon watering.
"People have just said: 'To hell with it' — and their places look like dumps," Edelblute said.
He asked why the city hasn't been replacing equipment regularly over the years so it wouldn't be in a near-crisis now. "Why do we have to wait until the damn thing is falling down?"
The hearing was to take public testimony, so city staff and the council generally refrained from responding to the comments. But later in the meeting, Councilor Jim Kleeburg recalled that Public Works came to the council year after year starting around 2008 to ask for regular wastewater rate increases of 5 to 10 percent to start saving for the upgrades.
At the time, Kleeburg said he joined with the majority of the council in voting against the increases in the belief that the upgrades could be paid for in the future by issuing bonds. In retrospect, he wondered if that was the right choice.
Councilor Bob Blakey said it is hard to judge what the majority of city residents think of judicial confirmation because so few people testified at the hearing. But he agreed with those who said the city should have been saving up for decades.
But now the bonds are necessary as an investment in the future of the city, and to ensure it can handle any future growth, Blakey said.
The council will consider a resolution at its June 25 meeting to authorize the filing of a petition for judicial confirmation. A judge will then schedule a hearing in 2nd District Court and issue a decision. If approved, members of the public will have 42 days to appeal.