Traverse City Record-Eagle


June 3, 2012

Septage plant assessment a fair, equitable way to pay

It was going to come to this — a yearly assessment on septic system owners — sooner or later. This is hardly sooner, but it's better than later.

From before it was built, Grand Traverse County's septage treatment plant was a good idea plagued by incredibly bad execution.

The county was going to be ahead of pending state and federal mandates concerning how waste from home septic systems had to be treated. With land application of waste being largely phased out, the plant was going to be a way for homeowners to clean out their systems in a timely and relatively inexpensive way.

But it was a botch job from the start. Estimates of how much waste the plant would handle, which led to determining its needed capacity, were way off the mark. Even if everything else had gone perfectly, the plant was too big and too expensive to operate; even if enough waste had been found to process, the plant was never going to pay for itself.

Almost as soon as it opened for business, a containing wall collapsed, spilling 50,000 gallons of waste. It turned out that the construction was also bungled; some of the concrete used was below standards for that kind of work.

Ultimately, the septage plant fiasco also exposed the county's convoluted and dysfunctional Board of Pubic Works, which argued over solutions while the county underwrote tens of thousands in plant losses over the years.

Now, it appears that a fair and transparent way to pay for the plant has been arrived at — as long as some area politicians see it through.

The county Board of Public Works will begin public hearings this summer in hopes of putting a $35- to $40-per-year assessment on the winter tax bills of properties with septic tanks in Grand Traverse County and Leelanau's Elmwood Township.

The board may also cut in half the per-gallon charge residents now pay for treating septic and holding tank waste.

The deal is the result of months of talks between the county, township officials overseeing the plant and the supervisors of rural townships, where virtually every homeowner has a septic system. They examined alternatives, ranging from finding a buyer for the plant to shutting it down, but none of them came close to erasing the $580,000 the plant may lose just this year.

Earlier talks had focused — from the rural townships' perspective anyway — on plans that would have put residents of the five metro townships — Acme, East Bay, Garfield, Peninsula and Elmwood — on the hook. Those townships make up the county's Water and Sewer committee, and had guaranteed the bond payments for the plant. Even if the assessments are approved, they'll have to cover the shortfall from their general funds in 2012.

In the end, having those who use the septage plant pay for it — in this case through an assessment on septic system owners and pumping fees — is exactly the way those who live in Traverse City and most of the metro townships pay for sewer service. Residents pay an initial hook-up fee and monthly sewage bills, which average $20 or more a month, far more than the proposed septage plant assessment. For those linked to the sewer system, a $40-a-year assessment would be a gift.

This is the way public works projects, particularly those that resolve public health issues, are supposed to work.

The government builds the infrastructure needed to protect citizens' health and keep the environment safe, and then parcels out the cost to those who use and benefit from that infrastructure.

Septic tank users don't pay for the wastewater treatment plant and sewer users shouldn't have to underwrite the septage treatment plant.

This is the solution we've needed from the start, but it took this long to find enough politicians with the political will to get the job done. Now they have to finish the job.

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