Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 21, 2012

Newsmakers: Septage plant problems bring price hike

Faulty usage projections continue to cause headaches


Editor's Note: Part of a series of stories about people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region in 2012.

TRAVERSE CITY — The on-again, off-again proposed special assessment to pay for the Grand Traverse County septage treatment plant finished the year decidedly off-again.

Politics, money, and the community's anti-tax sentiment combined to deny the county Board of Public Works a steady tax stream to support its money-losing facility. The oversized plant was designed to treat twice as much septage as it takes in, and the design was based on faulty projections by its project manager and engineering firm.

The BPW will instead raise the rate it charges to treat septage by 50 percent effective Feb. 1. But officials acknowledge the price hike might still not get the plant out of the red if septage volume drops by more than 15 percent.

"It just seems like a basic inability to accept responsibility," county Commissioner Ross Richardson said of the BPW. "From the onset they have lacked a basic mechanism to finance the plant."

Experts and a study committee recommended the special assessment as the best way to fund the plant.

The problem with an assessment is the strong anti-tax sentiment in the community that extends to a lot of members of the BPW, said Chuck Korn, Garfield Township supervisor and BPW member.

Financial peril finally pushed the BPW to move on the assessment, but politics muddied the water.

Officials from Garfield, East Bay, Acme, and Peninsula townships, and Elmwood Township in Leelanau County, guaranteed they would cover any financial losses at the plant. The township supervisors all serve on the BPW, and 2011 marked the first year the townships had to chip in cash to cover plant losses.

The BPW faced a potential $400,000 loss in 2012, and by last spring its members began a lengthy legal review to implement an assessment.

Jack Kelly, Elmwood's supervisor, accurately predicted the assessment would never fly in an election year.

As the august primary election loomed, BPW members decided they wouldn't consider an assessment until 2013.

The BPW took up the matter post-primary election and attempted to push an assessment through before year's end. About 400 people — many of them visibly angry — showed up at the first public hearing on the assessment in October and BPW members quickly backed down.

"That was an extremely intimidating and powerful exhibition," said Doug Mansfield, Union Township supervisor and a leading opponent of the special assessment. "I know people from Union Township were there and I am just so proud that they showed."

Rural townships planned to file suit to stop the assessment, but won't take action against the price hike, Mansfield said. But he doubts it will solve the BPW's financial problems.

"This is so complex to try and figure out how much use you are going to get, how much volume," Mansfield said. "There are professional people who do this for a living ... but (the BPW) is trying to do it with well-intentioned volunteers.

"This is how they got into this mess in the first place," he said.