Its time for D.C. and the big bucks
by Meg Olson
Blaine will pick up the tab for lobbyists and Washington, D.C. junkets if thats what it will take to get a regional sewer system rolling.
At their May 14 meeting, council members set aside misgivings about moving forward on a regional sewer system they had expressed at a council of the whole meeting a week earlier. They enthusiastically endorsed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) under which the city, Birch Bay Water and Sewer District (BBWSD) and, if they agree, the Lummi Nation, would retain a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to pursue federal funding for the project. The regional solution, if the funding is available, is of great benefit to the region as a whole, said council member Frank Bresnan Jr.
Council accepted the recommendation of mayor Dieter Schugt and city manager Gary Tomsic that Blaine bear the full cost of lobbying efforts, as outlined in the MOU. The amount spent on lobbying would be credited back to the city should the project, estimated to cost $32-35 million to complete, get adequate funding to proceed.
I had recommended it might be more fair if Birch Bay paid one third of the lobbying expense, Tomsic said. It became apparent after meeting with district commissioners that it was a very important issue, important enough to stop the project in its tracks. He said he would now recommend the city pick up the tab so the project could move forward.
Schugt said the districts position made sense. In the short term they have nothing to gain - theyre just being good neighbors, he said.
Under the proposed regional solution, additional pipes would be laid to connect the city and district systems and the Birch Bay sewer facility would be upgraded to handle both waste streams. A feasibility study commissioned by the city and the district estimated that, unless the project received at least 75 percent funding from an outside source, there would be a significant impact on rates. The purpose of the MOU is to go for the funding, Schugt said. If we dont get it were back to square one.
The feasibility study also considered alternatives to the regional system that could solve the citys wastewater problems, ranging from connecting to the sewer system serving communities across the border to a new sewer plant for Blaine. Bresnan said the MOU still left those options open. I dont think this locks us into anything, he said. There are other alternatives and this council cares enough to investigate those alternatives.
BBWSD manager Roger Brown said that, with Blaine undecided about future sewer plans, district commissioners didnt think their ratepayers should pay to help the city reach a decision on how to solve its sewer problems. The decision on whether to pursue an alternative has not yet been made, and that decision rests with the city, he said. Given that, we think it appropriate the city risk its funds.
Speaking from the audience, Andy Anderson urged city council to back away from regional plans with a big price tag and build a smaller, cheaper solution at home. Take a piece of the park, who cares, put the sewer in there, he said, recommending the city scale back plans developed for the upgrade of the Semiahmoo Spit treatment facility halted in 1998 when Coast Salish remains were discovered at the site. Anderson recommends using the plans to build a new plant on Marine Drive in Blaine.
If funding for the regional project doesnt work out we must move forward with another alternative or risk a moratorium, Bresnan said. We cant stay with our backs to the wall for too long. The state department of ecology (DOE), which regulates the citys sewer system, has said a connection moratorium could be imposed if the system continues to operate near capacity. Theres a reason they were going to upgrade the sewage treatment plant, said DOE water quality specialist Mark Henderson. Right now the plant is maxed out. Its time to make a decision, whatever that decision is. Henderson said a connection moratorium was a possibility, but DOE would rather the city voluntarily stopped approving new connections to address water quality problems.
The next step will be for BBWSD commissioners to approve the MOU, which Brown said could happen at a special meeting before their regular May 24 meeting. With the federal budget process already well under way, the sooner a delegation goes to Washington, D.C. to pitch the project, the more likely it will get funded.
Tomsic said plans were for a one-time trip for local leaders and the sustained efforts of a lobbyist. I think its important we have someone from the Lummi so we are all together at the table, said Dieter Schugt.
At press time the Lummi Nation had not been contacted by the city. Lummi Indian Business Council vice-chairman Gordon Adams said any decision about the tribes participation would need to be brought before the full tribal council when they meet next Tuesday.