Prineville again eyes sewer costs

City looks at raising fees to support its infrastructure

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: June 12. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE — With the population of Prineville expanding at a rate that few city officials expected at the beginning of this decade, city leaders often say that one of their major goals is staying on top of infrastructure needs.

Now, just a few years after completing a $12 million sewer system expansion, the City Council already is revisiting the topic of wastewater. Officials say more treatment facilities will be needed by 2013.

To pay for those needs, the council is talking about raising a variety of fees related to wastewater. A public hearing on doubling wastewater system development charges from $4,089 to $8,677 per housing unit is on the agenda for tonight’s council meeting.

In the past five years, Prineville’s sewer rates have risen 115 percent, from $20 per month to the current fee of $43 per month for a single-family residence, and the draft budget includes a $5 per month increase for the 2007-08 fiscal year.

The increased sewer rates initially were necessary to pay for the treatment plant expansion after several years of not raising rates enough, and the higher SDCs will go toward future sewer system improvements, according to a wastewater SDC methodology report that a consultant presented to the city in April.

SDCs are fees on new construction that pay for new infrastructure needed due to a growing population. The total SDC rate in Prineville, which includes wastewater, water and transportation, is currently set at $9,367 per single-family residence.

“As far as SDCs are concerned, I’ve said it before (and) I’ll say it again: My belief is that growth pays for itself,” said Prineville Mayor Mike Wendel. “I want us to realize that if we don’t pay the rates now and we’re supplementing the system now, it will come back to haunt us in the future … I don’t want us to be in a bind in the future and say, ‘Oh man, we needed to raise rates back then.’ I want us to raise rates as we need them.”

No crystal ball

Prineville and Crook County officials have been talking about a “population boom” for several years, and the city’s population grew by 37 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to Portland State University’s Population Research Center. But estimates done in 2000 by the same center put Prineville’s 2020 population at 14,700; it is already at about 10,000.

The new, higher wastewater SDC fee and any future raises are based on the estimated cost to provide sewer service to a population of 36,000, according to the consultant’s methodology report.

“The growth projections at the time were not even close to what they were a year or two after (the expansion) was completed,” Wendel said. “You try and forecast into the future as much as you can, but I think a lot of people didn’t forecast the growth that we’ve had in the last two years. We’re like everybody else — we don’t have a crystal ball.”

When officials first began talking about expanding the wastewater facilities, in 2000, Prineville had a population of about 7,350. By the time it was completed in 2004, that number had jumped 17 percent to 8,640.

Eric Sather, the manager of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, said the facilities expansion increased the system’s capacity by about 50 percent, from 1.1 million gallons per day to 1.6 million. Previously, city planners had said they might have to put a moratorium on new hookups to the sewer lines if the facilities were not expanded, effectively capping growth.

Right now, Sather said, Prineville’s residents and businesses put between 1 million and 1.2 million gallons of wastewater into the system every day. He added that he thinks another expansion or upgrade will be needed within five years. But the consultant’s reports says that new facilities could “be necessary prior to 2013 if large development interests desire to proceed with their development plans.”

City Manager Robb Corbett said that he does not know how long the expanded system was expected to cover the community’s needs, but he added that there is still room to grow.

“In terms of capacity, there was some discussion about time lines, but the more relevant discussion is how many homes, or equivalent dwelling units, will be provided for in the expansion,” Corbett said.

The work to expand the system added capacity for 1,500 additional homes, Corbett said. He added that about 3,300 homes total are hooked up to the system.

City planners decided to do the expansion in two phases, Corbett said, the first of which was completed in 2004.

“As I understand it, they had identified a 20-year need and they decided to only build half of that,” he said. Sather added that the next phase of the project would be to add another 500,000 gallons per day in capacity.

“We probably couldn’t afford at that time to build another 1 million gallon plant, so we said we’ll do it in two phases,” Sather said.

For the next couple of years, Wendel said, the city should work on making the wastewater treatment plant more efficient – lining pipes to prevent groundwater infiltration, for example – before discussions start on the next phase of expansion. Sather added that residents can help by running large loads of laundry and dishes and taking shorter showers.

“We knew that it was going to be pushing capacity in a short amount of time (when we did the last expansion), but we needed some additional or immediate capacity right away,” Wendel said. “I think we are looking at kind of what we can do to make that thing as efficient as we probably can.”

Upgrading the system

Wendel said that several years ago, the City Council did discuss building a mechanical wastewater treatment facility, which is more common in urban areas, instead of expanding the current lagoon system. The lagoon system involves a series of ponds where water treatment occurs through natural biological processes, which takes longer than a mechanical system.

“I think we did look at what the price tag is going to be (for a mechanical system), and that scared off a lot of people and said, ‘You know, we can make this lagoon system work … for a while longer — why don’t we do that?’ and I think that’s what we did,” Wendel said.

Sather said that a mechanical system would require more manpower and electricity, so residents would probably see their sewer rates go up even more if the city switched. Corbett, too, said that the benefits of the lagoon system are mainly financial.

“It’s the system that’s already in place and so it’s cheaper, so I would say primarily the benefit is cost,” he said.

Jayne West, a water quality permit specialist with the Bend branch of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said that mechanical systems are more compact and work faster, so they are usually used in larger cities. West said that Bend, Redmond and Madras all have mechanical sewer systems, although Madras also has a lagoon system.

West added that “mechanical system” is a catch-all term that encompasses a range of treatment processes. Because lagoon systems involve several ponds, they require a lot more space than mechanical systems.

“Lagoon systems are good in rural areas like Prineville because they have the land,” she said. “In cities or bigger towns there usually isn’t a lot of land, so the footprint for a mechanical system is often much smaller than for a lagoon system.”

Sometimes cities do get caught off guard by growth during the process for developing an expanded sewer system, which can take several years, West said.

“I think what happened there is it did take them a long time to plan and build that system, and by the time it got going the population had grown so fast that they already were looking at the next phase,” she said. “They knew that wasn’t the end — they knew that was only phase one of the process — and because it grew so fast, I think maybe they’re thinking, ‘Do we put in more lagoons or is it time now for a mechanical system?’ and it’s good that they’re thinking in those terms.”

Wendel said that, despite the unexpected growth, the city did a good job planning for its current needs, since the wastewater treatment facility would be over capacity now if the expansion had not been done earlier this decade.

“I think we’ve done a great job planning for the growth and, of course, you know, we have things that we could have done better on,” he said. “But I think if you look at the growth that we’ve had in the last couple of years and you look at what we could have done differently compared to what we have done, I think we’ve done a pretty good job. I’m really pleased with what we’ve done, with how we’ve managed growth.”

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