Sewer plant costs gives council pause
Blaine City Council members were looking a little numb at the end of a work session with a sobering bottom line: for a new sewer plant to go ahead, even a trimmed down project, Blaine ratepayers could be paying close to $100 each month for sewer in 2010.
“The alternative, to not proceed, is simply appalling,” said city council member Ken Ely as the March 27 work session came to a close and a moratorium on growth emerged as the only real alternative to the proposed Lighthouse Point wastewater plant on Marine Drive. “I don’t see where we have too much choice, knowing you’ve gone through and cut what you can,” council member Bonnie Onyon said to public works director Steve Banham.
Banham came to council with a somber message: construction costs, material costs, fuel costs, have all gone up and rather than $20 million, the current plans for the sewer plant were more likely to cost $35 million. The engineering team had some suggestions that would save $5 million, but some of them weren’t really appetizing to council members and members of the citizen’s wastewater advisory committee (CWAC).
After a value engineering workshop looking at 40 possible cuts to the project, staff is recommending reducing the footprint of the Lighthouse Point facility by stacking certain modules on top of each other. “Every bit of footprint we can reduce, reduces cost,” Banham said. “We could save about five percent by accommodating different shapes,” said project manager Steve Krugel.
“The underlying premise with locating it here was to add value to the area,” said Blaine community development director Terry Galvin. “If it’s smaller but wider it will intrude more into the park area which is extremely valuable. You can’t move a waterfront park somewhere else.”
“Scale was such a huge issue,” said former planning commissioner and CWAC member Brad O’Neill. “You start to stack up the boxes and it looks like a sewer treatment plant.”
Banham said they are also proposing a simpler look and finishes for the plant. “We would try and build the facility in an attractive but not costly.”
The cuts that led to the biggest savings were in processes, such as not adding an additional grit removal system and eliminating a membrane tank. Banham said changing the disinfection process and using the time to the Semiahmoo outfall as disinfection time would cut close to a million dollars off construction costs. He added they would eliminate for the time being the possibility of selling the water for re-use, leaving it to those who wanted to use it to build that infrastructure.
Another unpopular possibility would be to replace odor scrubbers with a stack. “There is an aesthetic issue and it isn’t as fail safe,” Banham said. “There is an odor risk.” Council and CWAC members were adamant there could be no cut corners when it came to protecting Blaine’s marina area from the smell of sewage. “That has come out as so important it better smell like perfume down there,” said Pam Christianson.
Banham also said they went as far as considering whether another site for the plant would be more cost effective, revisiting the option of sending sewage to Canada or Birch Bay. There was a quiet ‘no’ from north of the border, other locations would cost as much or more, and the Birch Bay option would be both expensive and unlikely. “They’ve seen an explosive amount of growth and they’re considering expanding to accommodate that,” he said.
Even with the cuts some council members found unpalatable regarding building design left in, the cost of the new plant would still require aggressive rate increases. Even if the city gets the $7.5 million in grants Banham plans to apply for and $22 million in low interest loans, rates will need to increase by almost 20 percent annually to reach $91 a month in 2009. The fee charged to connect to the system would also almost double in that time frame. “Those are some hard numbers,” Banham said.
Council and CWAC members gave staff and engineers the go-ahead to move forward with their recommended cuts to the budget right away, before costs went up more, and to include a 35 percent contingency fund so they didn’t have to come back to the cutting table again if they did. “We’re feeling quite comfortable this is a number we can build the plant for,” Banham said, unless another unexpected spike in prices comes along. “If gas goes to four or five bucks a gallon, all bets are off,” he said.