The Risk-Reward of Sewerage Services

An engineer’s high-priced estimates on a county sewerage system in Georgia have thrown a major kink into plans to link local systems with a regional waste treatment plant. In fact, the idea may be flushed completely.

Madison County leaders will meet again to discuss potential options on expanding sewerage services locally. How this will play out remains to be seen, but if anything is approved, it will be scaled back considerably from earlier aims.

County commission chairman Anthony Dove scheduled a meeting for Thursday, January 13, in the industrial authority’s meeting room at the historic county courthouse in the center of Danielsville. Representatives from the Board of Commissioners (BOC), the industrial authority, the school system and the cities of Hull, Danielsville, Comer and Colbert were expected to be on hand.

This group of leaders first met this past summer to discuss road and sewer issues. Engineer Chris Quigley outlined a proposed county sewerage system that he initially estimated would cost six to nine million dollars. He said the county could get roughly four million dollars in grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture to pay for the project.

Both the existing sewage treatment operations in Danielsville and Comer are in need of costly upgrades, with the figure of two million dollars thrown out in discussions of the Danielsville renovations.

As far as big picture planning, the comprehensive scenario really made sense if the initial numbers held true. If the county could use four million dollars in federal money to link systems at a cost of six to nine million dollars, meanwhile taking care of expensive upgrades in Danielsville and Comer, then that would be a financially feasible endeavor for everyone involved.

That’s what I left that first meeting in the summer thinking.

OK, rather than approaching necessary city upgrades in a piecemeal fashion, develop a comprehensive plan and get more for your money on a larger scale. Makes sense.

But Quigley recently threw out an entirely different figure at a recent industrial authority meeting—$14.3 million. That’s a huge jump in estimated costs. The discrepancy between the early estimate and the later one is a head-scratcher. Honestly, that sudden, big jump in estimated price transformed my feeling on this. And I hope many who sat at that table January 13 felt the same, not wanting to push forward with something that carries considerable risk of hurting, not helping the county financially.

Chairman Dove was right to publicly shoot down that $14.3 million plan at the BOC meeting following that high estimate, calling it financially impossible. He said the projected revenues did not hold up to the anticipated costs.

But for all the folks railing against any discussion of a county sewerage system, I’d offer this: you should want to see your leaders meet to discuss ways to do what’s economically feasible in a comprehensive way in this county, rather than each entity taking a “go-at-it-alone” approach. It’s smart to examine potential shared options. And if the options aren’t there, then it’s necessary to let go, rather than push forward with something that doesn’t make sense financially. The county sewerage system hasn’t advanced beyond the exploration phase. I suspect it may end there, unless a much cheaper option is presented.

Meanwhile, I think it’s interesting to watch a collaborative approach to infrastructure planning. In years past, the BOC has taken a hands-off approach to the industrial authority. They appoint members to the authority, but the BOC then leaves the political hot potato of infrastructure planning in Madison County completely up to the Industrial Development Authority (IDA). The authority has subsequently used its power to secure loans and grants to lay numerous water lines and to install a commercial sewerage system in Hull. They are the source of your praise or your anger depending on your view of growth in this county. The IDA is Madison County’s answer to the credo: “you have to spend money to make money.”

While the IDA has acted aggressively in recent years to lay infrastructure, the BOC has been much more risk averse when it comes to spending money. For instance, they have pretty much tabled plans for jail expansion. Special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) projects are at a virtual standstill, even though pennies do trickle in. After the government fell into the red several years ago, the board has tried to rid the county government of any debts and to keep from incurring any more.

In the end, I’m pleased to see the Hull sewerage system in place. It makes sense strategically. You don’t want Athens running a line up Highway 29 and pulling business—particularly large retail and grocery stores—to that side of the county line. The IDA was right to move on that. You want to bring in new businesses where three highways funnel into Athens. But I’d like to see that new system start generating more local sales tax dollars before the county invites more debt on expansion.

I’m pretty averse to debt myself these days. I hate to get those bills in the mail. 

Article submitted by Bruce Widener of the Georgia Onsite Wastewater Association. Originally published by Zach Mitcham, Editor of The Madison County Journal.

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