There don’t appear to be any silver bullet solutions for Saline City Council as it considers plans to upgrade or replace its aging wastewater treatment plant. Instead, council appears to favor upgrading at its current location in phased approach.
Given the enormous costs, council may not have reasonable alternatives.
In January, Tetra Tech presented the wastewater treatment plant siting study council commissioned, reporting the city would need to spend $32 million over the next 20 years, including about $12 million just to sustain the existing plant without growth. It then presented four different options for a wastewater treatment plant that could serve a city twice the current size.
Upgrading and/or rebuilding at the current site and, potentially, across the street on South Monroe Street at a cost of $76 million (raising utility bills by $280 a quarter).
Building a new plant in a new area at a cost of $90-$96 million (raising utility bills by $334-357 per quarter).
Joining the Ypsilanti regional wastewater system at cost of $87 million (raising quarterly bills by about $390).
A hybrid of combining the Ypsilanti system with upgrades to the current plant, which would cost $176 million and raise quarterly bills by $685).
These figures do not include debt servicing and other costs, such as buying land for a new site.
At a special meeting Wednesday, council began a deeper dive into the options - focusing mostly on cost.
They were assisted by city attorney Roger Swets, Tetra Tech VP Brian Rubel, and Warren Creamer, an expert on public finance and managing director and RW Baird.
Despite attractive interest rates, it quickly became apparent the city - and the utilities users who fund the system - are in no position to borrow the $100 million or more it would cost to connect to YCUA or build a new plant. Even the cheapest option - building/upgrading in place - has to be divided in phases to begin to make the costs palatable.
Mayor Brian Marl, early in the meeting, announced that council was nowhere developing consensus but by the end of the meeting, it was clear council had no appetite for the more expensive options.
“I don’t believe at this juncture that (the more expensive options) are appropriate or attractive primarily due to the additional burden it would place on our utility customers,” Marl said. “These numbers are beyond excessive.”
Creamer provided numbers showing the average annual utility costs rising from $480 to $1300 if council chose a $100 million, all-at-once solution. That number would decrease as more homes came online. Creamer’s figures showed the initial annual rate hike of $850 falling by 300 by 2045 - if Saline experiences growth of about 200 homes per year. That was a growth rate deemed too optimistic by Marl and Councillor Jack Ceo.
That left Creamer with an obvious conclusion.
“To me, this decision is a slam dunk. You go for the lower total cost and pick the ability to phase in with growth,” Creamer told council.
The phased solution would cost that same average home-owner an additional $205 in the first year.
Marl and several council members were in agreement that a phased approach to rebuilding and/or upgrading in place was a more realistic plan.
That plan includes an $23 million investment in the near term. It would include a primary and secondary clarifier, sludge tank expansion and more. A second phase, which might happen 10 or more years down the road, would cost another $23 million and increase the city’s capacity by about 2,200 homes. A third phase, costing $34 million, which would happen when required to meet growth.
“None of us have a crystal ball,” said Councillor Jim Dell’Orco. “We can’t predict when a recession will hit. If we build (all at once) and place the burden on citizens, it would create an undue burden for taxpayers. I’m in favor of a phased approach as new homes are added to the system. There will definitely be grief and pain felt by citizens. A phased approach is the only approach that mitigates this as much as possible.”
Building in place also saves council from the thorny task of finding a new home for a wastewater treatment plant.
“It keeps us where we are and doesn’t face us with the burden of explaining to people why we’re putting a sewer plant in their backyard,” Ceo said.
While council seemed to favor staying in place and improving in phases, there were still questions.
Councillor Janet Dillon questioned why council was planning on growth even though the council hadn’t agreed on annexation deals yet. She also wondered how equipment might hold up in a three-phased project and questioned whether the new equipment would work well with the equipment in the nearly 60-year-old plant.
Councillor Christen Mitchell seemed to hit the brakes on the discussion, noting that council had only a few hours to review the data provided by RW Baird before it could ask questions.
“I had one afternoon to look at this. That’s not what I need to hear right now,” said Mitchell, who has often raised concerns about council being asked to deliberate on matters without proper time to review the relevant information. “It feels like we’re flying by the seat of our pants right now. We are not in a hurry.”
Mitchell asked for more data on what utility rates might look like with slower growth.
It’s not clear if the city should be in a hurry to increase its capacity. For years, city officials have said the city has enough wastewater treatment plant capacity to service infill and the Layher Farms subdivision to be built on the north side. But according to the wastewater treatment plant siting study, the plant’s capacity is 1.81 million gallons per day. The study said the plant’s current average flow is about 83 percent of capacity. The state requires a plant expansion evaluation be conducted when it reaches 85 percent of capacity.
City officials have previously downplayed that number, saying 2019 was an unusually wet year. A 10-year average shows the plant at about 73 percent capacity. However, two of the heaviest years have come in the last two years, at 77 and 83 percent.