A group of Basin residents submitted their written alternative plan for improving the community’s water system, but near the end of a contentious discussion at the Sept. 8 Water and Sewer District meeting, the group’s spokesman, Jack Lundberg, threatened to dissolve the District.
Lundberg has asked the District Board to host an election to determine if a majority of residents favor, or oppose, the District Board’s current plan to take out a loan to put the Quartz Avenue pump station back online, install water meters and fix the leaks in the system.
When the Board said it would look into that possibility, Lundberg said he was concerned that it would stall that effort and countered with the threat of recalling the Board and dissolving the district.
The District Board’s plan, approved in April, has been met by months of angry backlash, which mostly centers on the group’s concern about taking out a loan that must be repaid and the installation of water meters.
While the loan has not been finalized, a rate adjustment went into effect on June 1 to provide the means to repay the loan, and that included a $12 fee for undeveloped lots within the district. The $392,000 loan, offered through the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, is expected to have half of that amount forgiven, leaving $196,000 to be repaid by the district at 2.5% interest over 20 years.
“You basically declared war,” said Lundberg about the District Board’s refusal to fully halt the project.
Board Chairperson MJ Williams, in a phone interview on Sept. 9, said she plans to consult with the District’s attorney about the validity of holding a vote on the project. Williams said she’s not opposed to hosting an election, but ultimately, that’s a decision that needs to be made by the full Board once it’s determined to be a viable option.
At the meeting, Basin resident Brian Carver said that part of the concern about the project is that it was decided upon by the five Board members and not the community at large.
The Citizen’s Plan
The plan submitted by the residents opposing the Board’s project asks that the $12 fee be stopped, along with any pursuit of the loan. The “Citizen’s Plan” calls for seeking grant funding that does not require the installation of water meters.
One reason provided by the District Board for installing water meters is that most federal and state funding sources now require their use before a grant will be awarded. The Board has expressed concern that as the system ages, namely the water main, more money will be needed to make repairs and replacements.
The “Citizen’s Plan” calls for buying a generator, using current District funds, to provide backup power in the event of a prolonged power outage. It also calls for purchasing a portable leak-testing device, also using existing District funds.
Once the District obtains grant funding, ideally a private or nongovernment source, the “Citizen’s Plan” calls for the Quartz Ave. pump house to be reopened, as well as investigating the use of ultraviolet light, rather than chemicals, as a method of disinfection. The plan calls for repairing the leaks detected on private property in a way that relieves the financial burden on property owners. Finally, and if approved by a majority of the community, water meters can be installed. The “Citizen’s Plan” also asks the Board to host an election to gauge community support for its current plan.
Recall and dissolution
The group of residents opposing the District plan has already attempted to recall the Board — an effort rejected in July by Jefferson County Election Administrator Bonnie Ramey.
Montana statute allows for the dissolution of a water and sewer district, which begins with a petition signed by more than 50% of property owners, as well as a public hearing set by the District Board. As part of the process, the District Board must determine that the dissolution is in the best interest of the public, and that action must be approved by the County Commission, according to statute.
Jefferson County Commissioner Corey Kirsch, whose district includes Basin, said he would not support dissolving the district, as it is not known who would take over operating the water system.
Lundberg, in an email, clarified the group’s position further on dissolution.
“While the question remains unresolved at this writing, it’s conceivable it would be reconstituted shortly thereafter and be, unlike the current composition, legitimately reflective of and responsive to the expressed wants of the community,” he wrote.
Dan Clark, director of the Montana Local Government Center, said it’s very difficult to dissolve a water and sewer district in Montana, and can usually only be done if it doesn’t own any facilities or provides any services, among other qualifications as described in MCA 7-13-2352.
The Basin Water and Sewer District owns three pump stations and provides water and sewer service to properties within its boundaries, as well as supplying all the fire hydrants, according to District Operator and Clerk Nissa Manley. It also owns the lagoon property with the building that houses the blower equipment and solar array, according to Manley.
In addition, the District owns the 200,000 gallon storage tank on the hill that is located on property deeded to the District for the purpose of housing the tank, said Manley.
Kirsch, however, does favor conducting some form of election.
“I always think a vote is a good idea,” he said in a Sept. 10 phone interview.
Kirsch, noting the Board has been working on the plan for years, said he understands that the backlash, coming at the 11th hour, so to speak, has been difficult to deal with.
One option is to install the meters and not use them, as the City of Boulder has done so far, said Kirsch.
There were 13 people criticizing the Board that evening, he said, while another 100 or so water users in Basin are fine with how things are going.
There were 12 opponents who reside in the Water and Sewer District at the meeting, along with Lundberg, who does not.
Ultimately, a vote would determine the level of support for the Board’s plan, said Kirsch.
During the meeting, Basin resident Bryher Herak said she knew of at least 10-15 people who are concerned about the water system and want the District’s project to move forward.
Discussion becomes contentious
Throughout the Sept. 8 discussion, Lundberg accused the Board of belittling the residents and restricting their input.
“You have a lot of angry, angry people,” said Lundberg.
“You (the Board) have driven a wedge in this community, and that I haven’t seen in my five years in this community,” he said.
Later in that meeting, Williams expressed frustration over the amount of animosity being hurled at the Board. That evening, the Board spent nearly two hours going over information with the citizen group — much of which has been discussed in prior meetings.
“This is not whack-a-mole, this is not a game,” said Williams referring to the many questions and comments brought up that evening in a back and forth between Lundberg and some residents that began to resemble what Herak described as being “cross-examined.”
Williams characterized the evening’s discussion as “destructive,” and said that perhaps the Board should “hold out” for the group’s threat of recall and dissolution petitions.
The Board also discussed having its attorney present, and perhaps other officials, at the next meeting to answer the more complicated questions, as well as requiring that questions be submitted in writing ahead of the meeting to allow time for researching the answer.