2011-09-03 / Top News

BPW Chair Lewand Resigns as Sewer Renovations Begin

By Karen Gould

Tom Lewand, chairman of the Mackinac Island Board of Public Works (BPW), has resigned, leaving the city in a quandary as it is about to embark on a $6.5 million sewer plant renovation. His resignation came Friday, August 26, following a joint meeting between the city council and the BPW, which highlighted the plan for the aging sewer treatment facility and sought the city council’s support for a series of sewer rate hikes through 2017 to fund the project. (See related story this issue.)

Mr. Lewand handed his letter of resignation to Mayor Margaret Doud following that meeting, saying he didn’t want his decision to detract from the important project discussion that night.

At a special council meeting Wednesday, August 31, Mayor Doud said, “We are in a state of flux as to who is going to replace him at this time.”

Mr. Lewand took the chairmanship in 2006, following the resignation of R.D. Musser, Jr. after 36 years as chair.

Mayor Doud said she already had approached Mr. Musser to return to the post, but he had declined. Mr. Musser attended Wednesday’s meeting and confirmed his decision.

The chairmanship is appointed by the mayor, as are the members of the board of public works.

Thirteen residents attended Wednesday’s meeting, originally called to discuss the wastewater renovation project.

“We thought it was only fair to have a formal discussion with the community,” said Mayor Doud, regarding the proposed six-year incremental rate increases, which amount to a cumulative total of about 35%.

A Rural Development loan for $6 million at an estimated interest rate of 3.3%, plus $500,000 from the BPW’s depreciation fund, primarily derived from impact fees, will fund the project. Materials are slated to be ordered in the spring, construction to begin next fall, and completion is expected in 2014.

The project primarily is for restoration of a 40-year-old treatment plant, said public works director Bruce Zimmerman. It will replace the oldest and most worn out components of that system to ensure its reliability and its continued compliance with state and federal standards.

Fourteen areas of the plant need work just to get the plant to a stage where it is reliable, said Jack Rafter, who is the senior project manager and an engineer at Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr, and Huber of Grand Rapids.

“I always look at a wastewater plant, think of your car,” he told citizens at Wednesday’s meeting. “Imagine it was running all the time. It has to be maintained. You can maintain, but, after a while, things that were running a long time, they start wearing out, no matter how well you maintain them.”

The primary clarifiers are weathered and aged and the concern is reliability and efficiency.

The main electrical system is so old that some replacement parts are difficult to find, he said. The motor control centers and other mechanical upgrades would be completed, and a larger generator would be purchased. The DPW is working with Cloverland Electric to get the electrical service to the plant upgraded.

“We want to make sure that we get the electrical system up to a modern standard,” he said, “so that it is reliable again.”

The project also includes replacing the sludge removal equipment so that the sludge will be dryer. That will reduce the weight and volume of the sludge, which has to be shipped to a landfill on the mainland.

Preliminary treatment equipment would be replaced, said Mr. Rafter. This area has a screen, which removes rags and other materials from the sewer pipe. New equipment would better handle the process, and that would mean less wear and tear on other parts.

Most of the work will be scheduled during the off-season. Equipment will be delivered next fall and most will be kept at the site. Contractors will be advised of Mackinac Island’s motor vehicle policies.

The money for this project will not be spent frivolously, said board member Ron Dufina.

Another board member, Jim Pettit, who is concerned that the project will not increase capacity and, therefore, inhibit future development, asked city attorney Tom Evashevski if the city has an obligation to provide sewer service to all property owners.

“We looked at that some years ago and I believe that the conclusion was that we don’t have the obligation to provide capacity beyond what we have,” replied Mr. Evashevski.

Developers, he said, could offer to pay for an expansion of the city’s wastewater treatment system.

The estimated cost to expand the system is about $15 million, said public works board member Vic Callewaert.

Mr. Dufina said the BPW has advised some developers they would be responsible for constructing their own treatment system.

Alderman Sam Barnwell suggested that a downtown property owner, therefore, would not be able to add additional floors to a building for housing.

“I guess not,” Mr. Dufina responded.

Mayor Doud suggested that city and the BPW have a “full discussion” about capacity.

The city now rations the little bit of capacity its sewer plant has left, and expects it to be depleted in about 10 years.

At any rate, the project to renovate the existing facility needs to move forward now, Mayor Doud said.

“If all goes as projected,” she said, “the city council will adopt the notice of intent resolution a week from tonight at the council meeting.”

The notice of intent will be published in the Town Crier and The St. Ignace News in September. Before September 30, the project engineers expect to receive approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Rural Development to bid the project. In mid-October the city would advertise for construction bids, which would be opened in mid- November. By early December the construction bids would be considered for approval by city council and Rural Development. By early January the city would close on the bonds. The DPW is working with Miller Canfield on the bonds.

“This is the timeframe that they are on,” said Mayor Doud. “Our bond council, Don Keim, is concerned that you keep on that schedule if at all possible so that we don’t get in trouble with the funding.”

Mr. Barnwell pushed for a schedule of progress meetings with the BPW as the project proceeds, and Mayor Doud assured him there would be a schedule, but no future meetings were set before the meeting was adjourned.

Resident George Goodman, former mayor of Ypsilanti and former executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, asked if the city had a plan to help year-around residents afford the increased rates and if the city had investigated other sources of funding, since much of the demand for water and sewer here is from the tourists.

“Given the nature of Mackinac Island, as it relates to the State of Michigan and the federal government,” he said, “I would hope there would be efforts underway to try to tap some additional resources so that the burden for this obligation doesn’t end up solely on the backs of the businesses and residents who happen to live here on this Island.”

Alderman Mike Hart said the city has no plans in place to alleviate the burden on year-around residents who might struggle with increased sewer rates.

Mr. Zimmerman said that the public works department looked for other sources of funding, but noted that the loan offered through Rural Development is favorable.

“Did we do everything we possibly can? I don’t know,” he said. “Did we do a lot? Yes we did. Should more be done? Yes. I’m not trying to be glib, I’m just reporting to you what I know.”

Helping pay for infrastructure and other improvements imposed by tourist traffic was one argument the city used when first implementing a franchise fee on the ferry boats.

Steve Moskwa asked where the city stood among others on its rates. When a big project is undertaken, rate hikes are to be expected, he said.

In response, Mr. Zimmerman said the city does not have the highest nor does it have the lowest sewage treatment rates in the state, but he did not have the exact figures at hand, and in response to a question from Mr. Musser, he said city rates are lower than those in St. Ignace, but he did not know by how much.

The next regular city council meeting is at 5 p.m. Wednesday, September 7.

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