Assessing Sewer Needs with Costs

Nov 28, 2012

Lexington city leaders have their ‘sewer improvement’ focus on a sizeable project located at the doorstep to the Fayette County community.  But, it’s just one of a number of expensive and highly visible projects on a list aimed to meet a federal government mandate.   There remain questions about balancing future needs against the will of taxpayers to pay for these improvements.

The cost of overhauling Lexington’s sewer system depends on thousands of small decisions.   This week, council members focused on a seven-million dollar sewer fix off Athens-Boonesboro Road.  Currently, most of the buildings are commercial, but, Council member Ed Lane says someday, there could be more homes.   Lane wondered, should the upgraded sewers simply serve current occupants, or should the council anticipate future needs.

“We’re estimated to spend around 600 million over a 12 year period on the project and I think it’s really critical in our planning that we try to anticipate where we’ll be 20 years from now and that our system has the capacity to be modified in the future without a huge additional cost,” said Lane.

The scope of Lexington’s sewer improvement program is large.  Over the next decade, the community could spend some 600-million dollars on sewers.  The overhaul was ordered by the federal government.  It says Lexington can no longer have cracked sanitary sewers that overflow during a heavy rain.  In some neighborhoods, it happens again and again.

Future needs also worry Council member Doug Martin.  Martin doesn’t want a brand new sewer system that’s inadequate even before it’s finished and paid off.

“I guess I have some concern about where we are gonna be in 20 years because I think what we all don’t want is to have to suddenly upgrade out system when we’re still paying for the first upgrade,” added Martin.

Part of the challenge is balancing the needs of home owners with economic needs.  Lexington has already set aside large parts of the community for farms and residences, and commercial space is increasingly scarce.   City leaders like Martin want to promote commercial and manufacturing development.  He says there’s always interest in building neighborhoods, but Martin adds, ‘those folks have got to work some place.’

Martin argues, build a sewer system that can accommodate new businesses and new subdivisions, and manage growth through zoning restrictions.  But, Vice Mayor Linda Gorton worries an enhanced system could promote  development where it’s not wanted.

“We don’t really know where the growth will be.  If we put the extra capacity in, then we more or less take that decision out of the planning commission’s hands and we make it,” said Gorton.

There’s also the question of how to pay for the additional improvements.  Much of the work will be financed by property owners who must pay sanitary sewer fees.  Council must decide if the community should fund a better sewer system, so some business owners in the future can set up shop on that property.

Whatever happens, Water Quality Division Director Charlie Martin says sewer fees must go up.

“Currently we feel like we have sufficient cash flow to be able to implement the early phases of the capital construction projects, but as time goes on spending between 40 and 55 million dollars a year, when the current revenue stream is roughly, obviously those revenue streams don’t add up,” said Martin.

So, once they agree on the amount of work needed and calculate a price tag, the council can determine size of a rate increase and take a vote. 

Currently residents pay just under five dollars for the first 100 cubic feet of sewage. 

Martin adds the size of that rate increase will be determined, in large part, by all the smaller decisions….such as the before council on the kind of sewer system needed for the Athens-Boonesboro project.

“The overall consent decree compliance requirements are gonna cause rates to increase in Fayette County.   That’s a given.  There’s just not enough cash flow to meet all the obligations.  This is one of them.   So, to point at it individually to say that caused rate increases,  I mean, the whole thing is causing it,” explained Martin.

If the city council makes a decision next spring on the size and scope of the Athens-Boonesboro Area Sewer Project, work could be begin in the summer.