One of the requests by Basin residents opposing the Basin Water and Sewer District Board’s plan to add water meters and reinstate the Quartz Avenue pump house was to take it to a vote.
Allowing the residents to vote either way would give an accurate count of how many residents actually want the Basin Water and Sewer District to go into debt to pay for those improvements, which has also led to a rate change, according to opponents.
MJ Williams, who chairs the Basin Water and Sewer District Board, said that it was not possible.
“I talked to Bonnie Ramey (Jefferson County Election Administrator), I talked to the county attorney (Steve Haddon), I talked to Megan Bullock (Jefferson County Sanitation) … I could find no mechanism for this kind of a Board to take a vote that would be verifiable,” said Williams at the Oct. 6 Board meeting.
The meeting, which was held on Zoom, was also marked by a new level of rhetoric by opponents, who during this session, were more limited in who could speak, and for how long, during the public comment portion.
This time, only District residents could speak and only for two minutes. There would be no question and answer period and mics were muted once the two minutes had elapsed. The Board had enlisted the help of its bond attorney, Nathan Bilyeu, to assist with keeping the meeting from becoming contentious, as it has in recent sessions.
The new public comment guidelines prevented the opposition’s representative, Jack Lundberg, from speaking, as he lives outside the district.
Those who did speak compared the current situation as a failure of democracy, a violation of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, as well as stating that the Board was acting as “the ruling class.”
Dede Rhodes disagreed with the new rates and was disappointed by what she viewed as a failure of democracy when it came to the decision as it relates to a possible community vote on the future of the Basin Water and Sewer District.
“I am deeply crushed. I have never had anyone take my belief in a democracy and crush it so heavily,” said Rhodes.
Bill Hagman also based his criticisms on his belief in democracy and the constitution. Hagman began by asking, “By whose authority you are sending me a bill for $108 a month. Who gave you that authority?” He followed it up by asking if any of the Board had read the Constitution of the United States of America. He then continued by discussing the 13th Amendment which he said, “Essentially, it says you can’t make somebody work or pay a bill for which they have not contracted ... it’s illegal.” He also clarified that the 13th amendment freed the slaves.
The 13th Amendment does not address bills or contracts, but specifically addresses the abolition of slavery.
In April, the Board had approved a series of rate changes to pay for the upgrades, which includes a $392,000 loan from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, with half to be forgiven. The loan did not require a vote from residents, according to Bilyeu.
The rate change, effective June 1 and following a public hearing, added a charge for those using more than 10,000 gallons, as well as a $12 monthly fee for an unoccupied or undeveloped property with no water connection. Under the new rate structure, residential and commercial water users pay a $48 base rate, with the variable usage rates beyond 10,000 gallons not to take effect until the water meters are installed. The previous rate was $48 for residential and $68.80 for commercial users.
In addition to putting the Quartz Avenue pump house back online, the Board plans to use the water meters to detect and repair the leaks that plague the system, causing excess water usage and costs to treat that water.
The water meters are also a prerequisite to obtaining future funding for system improvements, according to the Board.
When the Board stated the time for comment was up, a man from off-screen loudly replied, “your time is about up too.”
Opponents to the Board’s plan had, in the past, threatened to recall the Board members and dissolve the District.
The opponents had also asked the Board to seek out other ways — preferably non-governmental — to pay for the system improvements, but had logged off Zoom when Board member Joy Lewis addressed that request.
Lewis said she had looked at seven different private funding organizations and found several roadblocks to that option — the District is an entity of Jefferson County, it is not a nonprofit, it is not a large metropolitan area or a foreign country and did not generally fit the grant guidelines and therefore did not qualify.
The District, however, qualifies as a low-to-moderate income community for many state and federal loans and grants, such as the Department of Commerce Treasure State Endowment Program and the Community Development Block Grant Program grants and loans. The USDA also has grant funding for new planning projects, but will not award any funding without water meters in place, according to Lewis.
“There are more funding avenues available and I continue to research potential sites as my time allows,” said Lewis in a written description of her research.
Lewis said she was disappointed that those opposing the Board’s current plan left the meeting before she could address this one concern.
The next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 20.