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Buckley sewer plans will move ahead

City says legislative decision to pull funds will not stall project

By Shawn Skager

The Courier-Herald

The loss of Rainier School's $3.9 million contribution to the Buckley wastewater treatment plant may alter the scope and timeline of the project, but Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson and City Administrator Dave Schmidt said plans for the plant will move ahead.

Schmidt and Johnson said they question the financial ramifications of the Washington state House of Representatives decision to omit the $3.9 million from the state's capital projects budget.

“It's more of a blow to the taxpayer than to the city of Buckley,” Johnson said. “We're going to go ahead with the wastewater treatment plant, period. But it would have been nice to plan for the capacity that the Rainier School is going to need. We're going to build a smaller plant. I can't ask the ratepayers of Buckley to pay for capacity that the city of Buckley doesn't need.”

Buckley will now move ahead with additional engineering to decide what changes need to be made to downsize the scope of the wastewater treatment plant upgrade.

In 2003 the city was issued a permit requiring it to meet upgraded effluent discharge requirements for the White River by October 2007.

“So what we've got now is the engineers looking at the plans to decide how the design can be modified, what type of infrastructure can be cut out in order to design for what we need without them,” Schmidt said.

Now, Schmidt said, the state will be on the hook to pay for modifications to the design.

“The other thing that didn't make sense is that the state was committed to this project,” Schmidt said. “They spent a quarter of a million dollars with us on the design. Now we're going to have to go back and modify the design and we're going to insist they pay for any costs associated with that, because it's not the city's fault that we have to redesign the plant.”

For the Washington State Department of Health and Social Services, which operates Rainier School, the question now is what to do with the facility's aging sewer plant.

“The plant has serious flaws in the infrastructure,” Schmidt said. “It's a trickling filter system that was never designed for secondary effluent treatment, which is what the White River requires. The only way that plant is able to meet any semblance of water quality in the White River is they are diluting it with drinking water.”

Schmidt believes there are three options for the state.

“One was to come in with us for $3.9 million,” he said. “Another one was just let us know they wanted to buy into our capacity at some time, and for us to design to that at a cost of $5.3 million. Or, build their own plant at $10 to $12 million.”

“Because they didn't come in with us, they are left with one of the other two options,” he added. “And we already told them up front that we aren't designing for their capacity, so they can't buy in later. So now their only option is to rebuild that plant. So instead of coming in for $3.9 million with us, it's going to cost them $10 to $12 million in today's dollars. And if it's two or three years down the road, what's it going to cost them then? Construction costs have been going up about 30 percent per year.

“There is no common sense or rationale to this at all,” Schmidt continued “Even if your motive is to shut this school down, you still have a state asset with a large facility that is totally inoperable without being able to discharge that waste. The state, in order to maintain that value, is going to have to do something.”

Rainier School's permit for discharging into the White River expires in June, but DOE spokeswoman Sandy Howard said the permit will likely be reissued until the school can formulate a plan for its sewer system.

Howard added that the school has a “very leaky collection system” and has issues with the discharge pipe on the White River, but DOE requirements have been met on the current permit.

In addition, Howard said $100,000 was appropriated by the Legislature for Rainier School to do preliminary engineering on improvements to the current system or for a new treatment plant.

Aside from the delays and additional costs associated with the loss of the partnership with DSHS, Johnson is angered by what she perceives as the political tussle behind the decision.

“I think the thing that has my dander up so much is that Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-Snohomish, chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee) said he never heard from me,” Johnson said.

Dunshee stated in an e-mail sent March 3 that Johnson had never contacted his office.

“My office is open to many mayors from across the state,” Dunshee wrote. “Lots of them come by. If she had wanted to talk to me she could have.”

“I testified in front of his committee,” Johnson said. “I made five trips to Olympia and one was to testify in front of his committee. I had to introduce myself as the mayor of Buckley, so he obviously wasn't listening.”

In addition, Schmidt said he sent a letter to every member of the House Capital Budget Committee.

Johnson feels there is one underlying factor for Dunshee's opposition to funding Rainier School's contribution to Buckley's sewage plant.

“It's the closure of Rainier School,” she said. “I'll go out on a limb and say it. What else could it be? That's what we believe, that he would like to close down the residential treatment facilities.”

In 2003, Rainier School weathered a closure threat when Dunshee, along with several other house Democrats, attempted to replace Fircrest School with the Buckley facility on the state's downsize list.

“As taxpayers we should be marching on Olympia,” Johnson said. “By going in on our treatment plant right at the top we could save 2 to 3 million dollars.”

“It makes no financial sense at all,” Schmidt said. “It was a political decision that had no fiscal management behind the decision process,” Schmidt said.

“He just wasted at least 2 to 3 million dollars of the taxpayers' money, if not double that,” Johnson said.

Shawn Skager can be reached at sskager@courierherald.com.

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