When: Monday, June 25 at 7 p.m.
Where: Columbia Central High School auditorium, 11775 Hewitt Road
Who: Columbia Township Board, users of the sewer system.
Why: to voice complaints, disseminate information.
By Matt Schepeler
Columbia officials suspected that there would be some fallout from the hiked sewer rates last month. It turns out they were right.
The board approved a dramatic price increase at its May meeting, as recommended by an independent auditing firm. The increase hits Clarklake residents particularly hard, raising their bill to nearly $1,000 annually.
Specifically, the increase raises Clarklake prices from $157.23 to $234 a quarter; Lake Columbia’s prices from $142.23 to $168 a quarter; and Vineyard Lake’s fees from $180 to $207 a quarter.
When asked if there had been any fallout from the price hike, Columbia Township Supervisor Bob Elrod held up a quarter-inch-thick stack of complaints he had printed that had been made online. “Most of them come from Clarklake,” noted the supervisor. However, there have been many negative comments on a website that is Lake Columbia-specific as well.
While the price hikes were severe, they should have come to no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Township controller Heather McCutcheon has been warning the board for years that the numbers were not adding up.
In fact, the planning for the inter-municipality sewer was faulty in its genesis. Officials projected much higher buy-in from area lakes when the system was being developed. That never happened, meaning that fewer people are paying for the system than anticipated. With fewer users, the price goes up.
Problems have also plagued the system. Many of Lake Columbia’s lines were not buried deep enough, and a freeze-off cost the township hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. The township was left holding the bag, as the contractor that installed the system went out of business and was never held accountable for the faulty work.
The overall management of the system has also been rife with problems. Leoni Township (which operates the sewer treatment plant) has defaulted on its bonds. Meanwhile, ongoing litigation over who-is-responsible-for-what continues between the townships, and when the dust settles, someone is going to have to pay. It has even been suggested that should Columbia lose, a property tax hike may be ordered for the entire township. That is, of course, speculation at this point, but it is clear that the only people who have benefited from the litigation thus far are the attorneys.
Meanwhile, the Clarklake system is aging and in need of upgrades. Officials are also aware that there will be similar issues with the Lake Columbia system as it ages and they want to get some reserves built up in anticipation of the inevitable improvements that will be required.
Columbia Township, which is responsible for the oversight of the southern interceptor, contracts with the Brooklyn DPW to manage it. The township is required to keep a specific number of pumps and grinder cans on hand and ran dangerously low in recent months. Sewer pumps are expensive, and there has been a debate over which pump is the better investment.
While the issues can be confusing, at least one Clarklake resident believes it is the township’s responsibility to bring clarity. Township resident Chris Plummer addressed the board at its June 18 meeting and said they should provide “some kind of spreadsheet explaining the cost of the grinders, who is accountable for them, how they came up with these prices.”
The public is encouraged to attend the June 25 meeting at 7 pm.