The Basin County Water and Sewer District Board spent three hours last week defending its plans to install water meters and borrow $196,000 for repairs that have resulted in a rate change that began June 1.
Several residents who attended the July 22 meeting with suggestions of their own were asked to submit fully-formed written plans that will be considered at the next Board meeting.
A few of the alternate ideas offered included having residents do the repairs themselves with volunteer labor and machinery, starting a GoFundMe page to raise money to tabling the fees and considering a rate for part-time residents.
Others complained that they were not adequately informed of the rate changes and the need to borrow money.
The Board in April approved a plan to install water meters and re-open the district’s Quartz Avenue pump house. The water meters are necessary components of a system when it comes to applying for most state and federal grants and loans — money needed when it comes time to replace the system’s main, according to an information packet provided to those who attended the meeting.
District Operator and Clerk Nissa Manley said that by having the water meters, it will allow the District to apply for future funding, as the main is nearing the end of its lifespan and a replacement could cost many millions of dollars.
“We really need to be forward thinking,” she said.
The water meters would also allow the District to accurately assess usage, better pinpoint leaks and replace the aging curb stops, the majority of which have failing valves and are leaking water, according to the information packet.
The District needs to get its water use under control, said Manley.
“We’re at a very precarious moment when we need to make repairs,” she told the 25 or so in attendance at the Basin Community Center.
The Quartz Avenue well has a higher output than the Basin Street pump, would provide a backup source of water and has a higher pH level, which would allow the system to decrease its use of orthophosphate without risking further damage to existing copper and steel pipes, according to the informational packet.
The current well’s pH of 6.4 is causing the pipes to leech copper and create leaks, said Manley.
To pay for the upgrades, the District imposed a new rate structure, with residential and commercial customers paying $48 a month for up to 10,000 gallons. For those using more than 10,000 gallons, a variable rate is applied, depending upon amount — 10,001 - 15,000 gallons are charged an additional $4.50; 15,001 - 20,000 gallons an additional $5.50; and those using more than 30,000 gallons are charged an additional $6.50 a month.
The variable rates, based on usage beyond 10,000 gallons, will not go into effect until the water meters are installed.
The previous rate was a flat $48 a month for residential users and $68.80 a month for commercial customers.
The other rate change that appeared to cause a good deal of consternation among those at the meeting was the $12 a month fee for an unoccupied or an undeveloped property with no water connection.
The $12, supported by state law, is based on the premise that the property owner enjoys the benefit of a central water system, to include fire suppression, and that access to water is available if a hookup is desired, according to the District’s bond attorney, Nathan Bilyeu.
Board member Brian Gasch pointed out that the fees are also used to maintain the system.
The Board explained that it had hired Great West Engineering to assist with its improvement plans, and the consultant also helped with applying for grants.
The existing lack of water meters meant that the district was ineligible for many grant and loan programs, said Manley.
The loan that the District did receive, at up to $392,000 with $196,000 being forgivable, is “unheard of,” said Bilyeu.
“This was the best we could get,” said Gasch.
According to the resolution as approved in April, the District will borrow $196,000, to be paid over a 20-year period with an interest rate of 2.5%. The highest debt service amount over the life of the loan for one year is estimated at $14,782, according to the resolution.
Manley said the loan has not yet been signed off on and Bilyeu said the project has yet to go out to bid.
In April, Manley said the new rates had to be put into effect before the loan was closed and construction could start.
The Board, and Bilyeu, also explained why having local residents volunteer to replace the curb stops would not work. Overall, it is expected to cost about $2,333 to replace an individual curb stop. There are 103 active curb stops, with 84 failing, said Manley. Overall, Basin has 158 curb stops. Curb stops are the valves used to turn on and off water service.
Carri Robertson had offered up her own backhoe and said there were people in the community who could volunteer to do the digging.
Bilyeu said that since this is a public system, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality oversees the project and it has certain standards that must be met.
There are few contractors that know how to do this work efficiently, are adequately bonded and insured and can meet the DEQ standards, said Bilyeu.
With regards to raising money outside of government-type grants and loans, Bilyeu said he’s heard of churches and local groups raising money to help out and that the loan could be repaid early.
The Board said it was unwilling to table movement on the project, but Bilyeu said the rates can be amended at any time. Gasch said any rate changes would need to be “revenue neutral,” that is, not change the amount of money coming into the system.
The Board also explained how the project had been on the Water and Sewer District’s agenda over the past two years.
It is the obligation of the residents to come to meetings, as agendas are posted, said Board member Joy Lewis.
Board Chairperson MJ Williams said that the information was also included in a newsletter and that it goes in everyone’s post office box.
Perhaps next time the Board will try using leaflets, she said.
Resident Vanessa Martin was critical of the Board’s efforts on informing the residents.
“This is the part of the problem, you versus us,” she said, and suggested the Board use a plane and drop leaflets.
Williams said the Board members are equally affected by the rate changes as everyone else.
“I’m not here to bludgeon you or cause you trouble. We’re charged with protecting the water system of this community,” she said.
The Board members are volunteers and are not elected, said Williams in a later phone interview.
Williams said that if anyone had a better route to take to address these problems, to put them in writing and submit them to the Board.
The Board is having a work meeting tonight and the next regular meeting is Aug. 11 at 6:30 p.m. and will be on Zoom.