Cecil County Extension of Sewers in Elkton West Could Cost $62 Million
In the aftermath of the collapse of the sale of four Cecil County wastewater plants to the private Artesian Resources firm, bringing county sewage treatment service to the Elkton West area could cost $62 million and take up to 12 years, Cecil County Commissioners were told Tuesday.
A 3-2 majority of the Commissioners and Artesian decided to “mutually terminate” the long-pending sales contract a few weeks ago. In the absence of a privatization plan for extending infrastructure services, some commissioners have lamented the lack of a “plan” by the county board to move forward.
Scott Flanigan, the county’s Director of Public Works, stepped into the breach Tuesday and outlined a course of action to develop a “wastewater strategic plan” that could ultimately bring needed infrastructure to the county’s Route 40/I95 growth corridor to stimulate economic development. But the plan could cost $62 million and would be phased in over more than a decade, meaning that there would be no short-term solutions to the county’s inability to attract business and jobs to the growth corridor due to the lack of infrastructure.
Flanigan said that his department worked with a consultant in 2007 to develop a report that was the basis for the county to decide whether to privatize most sewage services or do the job at county expense, or “do nothing.” A previous Board of Commissioners decided in 2008 to privatize, but now, Flanigan said, that report could serve as the basis for a review and “update” to provide a blueprint for the future.
“But the world has changed since 2007,” Flanigan said, citing the new and still evolving state and federal mandates for Chesapeake Bay cleanups that will limit “total daily maximum load” (TDML) of sewage effluent discharges and the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) that will set strict limits on pollution flowing to the Bay.
The 2007 plan calculated the cost to extend the Elkton West area sewage service at $62 million and Flanigan said that the figure might actually be a bit lower now since, due to the poor economy, contractors are willing to put in lower bids for construction work. However, it is still unclear what extra costs the new environmental mandates might add to the tally.
Apart from the costs of extending new services, the collapse of the Artesian deal could also shift another $10.1 million in costs to county citizens just to perform needed upgrades of the existing plants to comply with environmental rules and repair several outdated facilities. [SEE previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/09/cecil-county-commish-vote-to-kill-artesian-sewage-plant-sale-collapse-of-deal-to-cost-citizens-over-10-million-in-plant-upgrades/ ]
Those facilities had been slated for sale to Artesian, which would have borne the costs of upgrades and repairs.
Sewage treatment plants are supposed to be supported by fees paid by users of the system, through connection charges and bills for services received. But in political reality, the county commissioners have been unwilling to raise those fees to adequate levels to cover costs and general funds have been tapped for some expenses—so that taxpayers who do not benefit from those services foot part of the bill.
Flanigan said he realized that “most people start gasping and falling down” when they hear a figure of $62 million just to provide services in the Elkton West area. But he said another step in his strategy would be to come up with a financing plan that could be a creative mix of user fees, connection charges, grants and “public-private partnerships” to help offset costs.
And he suggested a re-direction idea to shift some sewage flows to the Meadowview plant which is not part of the Bay watershed and as such is not limited by the WIP/TDML mandates. Although that plant needs upgrades, it still has adequate capacity to accommodate flows currently targeted to go to other facilities, he said.
Flanigan outlined a course of action to update and review the 2007 report and work with “stakeholders” such as homebuilders and business interests to consider creative financing and staged expansion of sewage service. He said some elements could be incorporated into the county’s five-year capital improvement plan, which is updated annually. And economic development officials could highlight areas where new businesses are interested in locating so as to potentially expedite expansion of services to areas where private interests might be willing to share some of the costs.
Flanigan’s take-charge outline of an action plan was a welcome breath of fresh air to some commissioners who have lamented the lack of an alternative among their fellow board members since the three-member controlling majority nixed the Artesian plan.
“I am delighted,” said Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2), who had supported the Artesian sale. “I feel that one of your strengths is planning,” she said in complimenting Flanigan, and she offered her “congratulations” to him for coming up with a strategy to move forward.
Flanigan is a professional engineer and is retired from the US Army, where he served with the Army Corps of Engineers and was also in charge of facility operations at a major military base overseas. His presentations to the County Commissioners are always well-prepared, detailed to the point of yawns from a non-professional audience, and thoroughly researched.
“I think that’s good,” Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4), the leading opponent of the Artesian sale, said after Flanigan’s presentation. “We do need to rigorously see where we’re at now.”
Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5), who supported the Artesian sale, said he would “fully support” the strategy suggested by Flanigan. But he warned that the Commissioners have to make some public decisions on where they want the infrastructure to go, since “some” commissioners seem unwilling to allow infrastructure in areas where the Appleton Regional Community Alliance (ARCA) has litigated against services for years.
Commissioners need to realize that any county-led sewage service expansion is “not going to happen for free” and that it will take investment up-front to build services even if costs are reimbursed by users later. “Who’s going to front the money…who’s going to make the initial investment,” he asked.
Commissioner James Mullin (R-1) said the county should consider “targeted investment” toward “employment centers” in considering how to prioritize expansion of services.
Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) did not say a word during the lengthy presentation and discussion.