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Esky eyes steep water, wastewater hikes

ESCANABA — Rates for Escanaba’s water and wastewater services may see another significant hike in the near future. Potential water and wastewater rate increases of 35 and 30 percent, respectively, were discussed during a virtual budget work session Monday.

Water and Wastewater Superintendent Jeff Lampi spoke about budgets for these departments during Monday’s session. For the 2020-21 fiscal year, the wastewater department’s revenues were estimated as $2,563,000 and its estimated expenditures were $1,975,062. Meanwhile, the water department’s estimated revenues for the coming fiscal year were estimated as $4,658,550 and its estimated expenditures were $2,840,040.

During his presentation, Lampi shared bids the wastewater department had received (but has not yet accepted) for improvements to the city’s wastewater plant. Staab Construction Corporation of Marshfield, Wis., had bid $12,587,000 for the work, and Grand Traverse Construction of Traverse City had bid $17,506,000.

“They are high. I’m kind of sickened about it, but I don’t know what else we’d do,” Lampi said.

These were lump sum bids, which did not factor in necessary work listed as “alternates” — including reduced demolition of abandoned primary treatment facilities, work associated with raw sewage fines, and construction for an effluent booster pumps station.

“Without Alternate One, the state may come back and tell us that we have to do a consent order to fix the collection system,” Lampi said, referring to the latter work.

Additionally, the bids did not include engineering work on the project.

According to Lampi, he had no good options for the board. Rebidding would delay the project without any guarantee that the new bids would be lower. Meanwhile, forcing local residents to remove sump pumps — which he described as contributing significantly to problems at the wastewater plant, which can receive two to three million extra gallons of wastewater per day during high water events — would result in costs to homeowners while forcing them to figure out where to pump the wastewater.

“I fully expect we’ll be criticized whatever we do, but doing nothing is not an answer,” Mayor Marc Tall said.

Due to the potential high costs of work on wastewater plant improvements, Lampi said a previously planned wastewater rate increase would need to be larger than was expected.

“The rate increase that we had planned isn’t what (it’s) going to be,” he said.

A 20-percent increase in wastewater rates had originally been planned for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

In regards to the water department, Lampi addressed efforts to replace lead water service lines — a major reason for the water rate increase, along with water plant improvements and other factors. Eighty percent of water lines in Escanaba will have to be replaced; the department will have to replace between 3,000 and 4,000 lines at a rate of 5 percent a year starting in 2021.

Lampi said he has multiple plans for how to proceed with this work, depending on how the situation develops. In one scenario, the department could go relatively slowly and self-fund the work.

The department could also go “fast and furious” — that is, it could take out a loan, apply for loan forgiveness from the state, and do many line replacements in a short period.

“We are, or we have recently become, (a) disadvantaged community. That gives us more points; it gives us more hope of loan forgiveness,” Lampi said.

Furthermore, the city could see long-term savings by doing the work earlier and avoiding possible increases in construction costs.

After some discussion, Lampi and other participants in Monday’s virtual budget work session agreed to further discuss the water and wastewater budgets after a second budget session set to take place Tuesday morning. Based on the results of the discussion, Lampi will share a recommendation on the wastewater plant project with city council at its next meeting on Thursday, April 16; however, he noted the final decision on the matter will be made by city council.

On another topic, Lampi spoke about the possibility of upgrading city water meters to make them compatible with AMI (advanced metering infrastructure), as brought up by Electric Superintendent Mike Furmanski during Monday’s session. An AMI system would be used by both the water and electric departments.

Lampi anticipated the water department’s share of costs for implementing an AMI system would be $200,000-$300,000. However, he said the system would have a more pronounced impact on the electric department.

“They would get instantaneous feedback .. our readings would still be based off of 10-gallon increment flows,” Lampi said.

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