Cecil County “Holy Crap Moment”– Sewage Plant Upgrade Flushes Out Debate on Costs, Pay Now or Later?
It was the Scott Flanigan show at the Cecil County Council Tuesday morning, as the countyâs Director of Public Works, with a supporting cast of staff and consultants and charts projected on the wall, waded through the muck of the countyâs Seneca Point sewage treatment plant– and made a strong case for spending $29 million in county funds to proceed with a modern but proven technology to meet state-mandated cleanup standards while also preparing for potential future expansion of sewage services.
But, like in any good drama, he had an antagonist on the stage: County Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4), who questioned the technology, growth projections, and whether the former County Commissionersâincluding herself– really knew what was going on when they voted in the past to support the technology and its costs.
In a post on her website here: http://dbroomell.blogspot.com/2013/04/i-am-very-concerned-that-cecil-county.html Broomell argues that the costs are excessive and the immediate requirement of meeting new state environmental standards could be met for free by doing a bare-bones technology that would be paid for in full by a state grant. Scrolling down past some of the political rhetoric, Broomell does make an interesting, and important, argument: should current sewer service customers, and current county taxpayers, have to contribute to the costs of new technology that will lay the groundwork for services to future customers many years down the road?
âWe are putting the cart before the horse in making the current users bear the costs for the [technology] which is reflected in the sewer customer increasesâ in rates proposed as part of the fiscal 2014 budget., she said.
In her Fiscal 2014 budget proposal, County Executive Tari Moore proposed catching up on needed sewage user fee boostsâa step that a majority of her former County Commissioner colleagues were politically unwilling to take. Moore has also proposed steps to create a countywide sewer authority that she says would âtake the politics outâ of rate increase decisions in the future.
Broomell was part of the Three Amigos voting majority of the Commissioners who voted during the budget process in the past to refuse to raise sewer rates for current customers, with the result that other taxpayers who do not use sewage plants have had to foot part of the bill. Sewer services are considered an âenterprise fundâ for which costs are supposed to be paid by existing customers and in hook-up fees for newly developed homes and businesses.
Mooreâs budget also includes provisions to continue with the plan to upgrade the Seneca Point plant to meet state environmental mandates as well as proceed with technology that would facilitate an expansion of the plant in the future. That issue is already being hotly debated within the Council.
During his presentation to the Council, Flanigan made the case that in the long run, the dollar costs would be about the same if the new technology were installed now or if the bare-bones approach is taken now but the full costs of expansion were paid in the future. Yet the technology he advocates would provide more bang for the buck, an alternate technology advocated by Broomell is untried and untested, and that failing to make provisions now for possible future Seneca Point expansion could deter the business and economic development that is crucial to the countyâs economic future, Flanigan said.
The project, under previous approvals dating back to Fiscal 2008 and as recently as 8/16/ll, is already moving forward with design and engineering work that has already cost $3 million, Flanigan said. And he pointed out that Broomell herself voted in 2011 to award a contract to âlock in a priceâ on the membrane technologyâwhich Broomell now says she opposes.
âSome have implied,â Flanigan said, that his department was trying to âfly beneath the radarâ on the project, but he pointed out the proposal has been included in the countyâs long-term capital improvement budget since Fiscal 2008.
As Flanigan outlined the scenario, the countyâs current Northeast River Advanced Wastewater Plantâknown to county residents as the Seneca Point plantâis under state environmental mandates to upgrade its sewage treatment levels to âENRâ or enhanced nutrient removal standards. The county is already behind schedule to meet that mandate, but recently negotiated a deal with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to extend the deadlines.
Those deadlines require that the county must start upgraded plant construction by 12/10/13, with substantial completion by 5/18/16. After tests and evaluations, the ENR standards must be met by 1/1/17, although modest state fines would be imposed if the standards were not met by that date. However, the real âdrop deadâ deadline is 7/1/17, at which time there would be huge state fines imposed for failure to meet the environmental standards.
Flanigan recounted that a number of years ago Cecil County âgot discoveredâ by homebuyers and developers, and local officials realized the county could run out of sewage treatment capacity to meet anticipated growth demands, especially for large businesses seeking to locate in the county. As a result, the County Commissioners approved capital improvement budget provisions for expansion and upgrades to Seneca Point.
That was the countyâs âholy crap moment,â the usually strait-laced Flanigan told the Council Tuesday. It was at that point that county officials realized that the county could be out of sewage treatment capacity for future needs, and the county might be forced to âinstall a âclosed for businessâ sign on the growth corridor,â Flanigan said.
So, as of the Fiscal 2008 Capital Improvement Budget, the county has agreed to proceed with new technology and expansion of the Seneca Point plant, Flanigan said. Initially, the county was considering upgrading the plant from its current 2 million gallons a day capacity to as much as 5 million. But when the economic downturn hit the county, the plan was scaled back and put into a two-part project: upgrade to meet the state ENR standards now, but build in technology that could be used for a later upgrade to 4.5 million gallons capacity.
The countyâs current capacity is limited by previous allocation of sewer hookups to various projects that would have to be served before any new projects, or a major business looking to locate here, could be served. Flanigan said the plant currently provides 1 million gallons a day in services to existing homes and businesses but 800,000 gallons capacity has been promised. So that leaves just 200,000 gallons a day of capacity left for new projects, he said.
He estimated the county could reach its capacity in the next five years– by Fiscal 2019âor perhaps as far ahead as Fiscal 2023, depending on demand from new customers and how many of the previously approved projects used their allocations. âI donât have a crystal ball,â Flanigan said, but âit requires educated guesses.â
Broomell interrupted Flanigan, saying he had not answered questions she had submitted to him in the past and inquired âwhat is the shelf lifeâ of the previously approved allocations.
âYouâre out of order, let him finish,â County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) told Broomell.
âI donât appreciate being spoon fed information,â Broomell retorted.
Flanigan conceded that some of the allocations may be for projects that are âdeadâ and his department is currently reviewing past project to determine whether they are likely to proceed. In the past, âbefore our holy crap moment,â he said, there was no time limit to use or lose the allocations, but more recently the allocations are only good for a year.
Meanwhile, the technology of the project came under scrutiny. Independent consultants were retained to research the best technology, Flanigan said, because the project was âlikely to be the largest capital project in the countyâs history and itâs critical that we get it right.â The experts recommended a âMembrane Bio-Reactorâ (MBR) system, which Flanigan said is consider a gold standard of modern technology and one that is already in successful operation at other large sewage treatment plants.
The county has already spent about $3 million in planning and engineering costs to upgrade the Seneca Point plant, using the MBR system as the basis of the work, and any change in technology now would mean much of that work would have been wasted. DPW staff also pointed out that the MBR technology carries a 10 year full guarantee from the manufacturer and a pro-rated warranty for the subsequent 10 years.
âThatâs pretty phenomenal,â Councilor Joyce Bowlsby (R-2) said of the extended warranty.
Flanigan said an important consideration in picking the MBR technology is that its usage would enable future expansion of services at its existing facility. Without it, the county might need to seek a whole new plant site– due to wetlands on the Seneca Point land that would bar adding on to current facilities there. And seeking a new sewage plant site would no doubt trigger strong community opposition.
In response to questions from Hodge, Flanigan said the MBR technology could readily adapt to ever-increasing environmental standards imposed by the state in the future, as well as give the county ânutrient creditsâ under state mandates to offset other pollution issues in the county.
Such credits âwill allow us to do something else,â Hodge said, and give the county some flexibility in meeting expected new state âoffsets for growthâ rules that he said would be a ânightmareâ for the county.
On the question of how much sewage service customers should, or will, pay, a consultant who has studied the issue multiple times presented a lengthy explanation of the rate-setting process. The current quarterly bill for a minimum of 10,000 gallons is $84.40 but, to meet expenses, that would rise to $89.30 in Fiscal 2014 and $94.50 in Fiscal 2015.
Due to the scope of the Seneca Point project, much of the countyâs $29 million cost of the mandated upgrade and the MBR technology would be fronted through county-issued long term bonds, with annual debt service figured into the sewage servicesâ operating costs each year.
Broomell said the project would contribute to âsubstantial increasesâ in customer rates and âa long term bond that all taxpayers will have to fund.â She said the county has âother prioritiesâ that are more worthy of taxpayersâ support.
The Seneca Point issue is a complex one and county citizens should take the time to see and hear for themselves Flaniganâs presentation. As of Wednesday morning, the Cecil County governmentâs website was not functioning so it wasnât known when audio of the Tuesday worksession would be posted.
But thanks to the hard work and dedication of citizen Al Reasin, who regularly videotapes county government meetings at his own expense and on his own time, video of the presentation is available in two parts on YouTube. We are not embedding the video on Cecil Times, in deference to our many dial-up or low bandwidth readers. But here are hotlinks to Alâs video: Part 1 is here:
Part 2 is here: