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Another View: Wastewater: Fantasies and some realities

By: Kevin Hanley, Auburn city councilman
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I disagree with your May 5 editorial “County, cities need to stop wasting time,” in which you argue that “on the surface a regional (sewer) plan looks like the way of the future” and therefore Placer County and the Cities of Auburn and Lincoln should “move quickly to form a Joint Powers Authority” to settle on the true project costs and (possibly) build it. The problem with “on the surface” analysis of proposed public works projects that are large, complex and permanent in scope, is the high probability of massive cost-overruns and poor service quality for ratepayers. The Bay Bridge is now five times more expensive than the engineers originally predicted. Over the last 15 years, the regional sewer plant idea has been plagued by two fantasies. First, political leaders in our region believed that the federal tooth fairy would bestow millions of dollars to construct sewer pipelines from Colfax to a modern regional sewer plant in Lincoln. The federal tooth fairy did put a couple of quarters under the county’s pillow to pay for planning. The City of Lincoln made their own decision in 2000 to spend $12 million to oversize the sewer trunk lines to accommodate sewer flows from up the hill. But the fantasy of big federal money has been crushed by reality. The federal tooth fairy got run over by a Mac truck called the “Massive Federal Debt.” R.I.P. Now a second fantasy has appeared in a last ditch effort to build a regional sewer system. I have great respect for the honesty of Lincoln officials in their proposal to design, construct, own and control all the pipelines and facilities to convey and treat sewage from Auburn and SMD-1 customers in North Auburn to the Lincoln plant. However, the Lincoln proposal – more akin to sewer “colonization” than “regionalization” – would force Auburn ratepayers to pay excessively high sewer rates starting this summer and for decades to come and would significantly hamper future job creation in our town. Even in the best-case scenario, we would be lucky if the project broke even in 50 years. Building a pipeline from Auburn to Lincoln in which one consultant firm estimates that there is “only 18 percent hard rock” while another firms says there is 27 percent hard rock has “massive cost-overrun” written all over it. Auburn recently completed an extensive $5 million modernization of our sewer plant that uses ultraviolet (UV) lamps instead of chemicals to treat the sewage. Hundreds of solar panels at the plant are now powering the facility and this will save Auburn ratepayers a minimum of $1.7 million over the next 10 years. Auburn’s modern plant is just as capable as Lincoln’s plant in meeting any new regulatory requirements imposed on us by the regional water board. Auburn’s plant has enough land to meet all future sewer demands even when the city is 100 percent built-out. The City of Lincoln has never acceded to our reasonable request that a Joint Powers Authority be created to ensure that Auburn sewer rates are not kept artificially high and thereby eroding our ability to attract good jobs. To keep Auburn’s sewer rates as low as possible, the city should take two actions: (1) Use a competitive bidding process in 2012 for the operation of the city’s sewer plant; and (2) Put a Home Rule For Auburn Charter on the June 2012 ballot that would enable the city to save 5 percent to 10 percent each year for sewer repairs using market rates and construction firms in Placer County rather than being forced to use artificially inflated “prevailing wage rates” determined by bureaucrats in the Department of Industrial Relations in Sacramento. Kevin Hanley serves on the Auburn City Council.