2013-05-18 / Top News

More REUs Expected

By Stephanie Fortino

Mackinac Island’s sewer renovation could have the unintended benefit of increasing capacity by as much as 300 units, noted Department of Public Works Director Bruce Zimmerman at a joint committee of the Board of Public Works, Planning Commission, and City Council Wednesday, May 8. The exact increase in capacity won’t be known until the upgraded plant has been operating for a full year, and he cautioned that the city should count on a more conservative figure. The group met for the first time since February to continue discussions about the fate of the Island’s dwindling sewer capacity. Decisions about how the committee wishes to distribute sewer capacity, which it measures in Residential Equivalency Units (REUs), will be reached at another committee meeting in June, before a six-month moratorium on REU allocation expires, said Mayor Margaret Doud.

One REU is equivalent to the average use of a single-family household.

“I think it’s probably the best news anybody’s heard about REUs in a long time, as far as we aren’t going to be having to deal with a finite deadline right now,” BPW chair Steve Moskwa said.

Renovations to the sewer facility started in April 2012, and are expected to be completed in June or July of this year, according to Mr. Moskwa at the committee meeting Wednesday.

The project is required by the state to upgrade the wastewater treatment facility to better comply with Great Lakes clean water discharge standards. In the past, city residents have objected to any increase in capacity, which they believe fuels continued over-development of the downtown and residential subdivisions. So the city, when it announced the project several years ago, promised its intent was only to upgrade technology and equipment, not expand capacity, even though it was understood that the efficiencies of the new equipment would allow more volume to be treated.

As existing capacity has been predicted to be reached within in four or five years, politicians have been wrestling with the predicament, and in December, imposed a moratorium to stop a rush by developers to get REUs before they ran out. The increased capacity predicted now, while not intended, is welcome news to the city council.

According to John Rafter, the engineer managing the project, if renovations are completed as predicted, the facility will be able to handle an additional 60,000 gallons of capacity per day, which equates to about 300 additional REUs.

But Mr. Zimmerman was wary of such a high number, adding that he always likes to be conservative when estimating how far the city can push the facility.

“If the engineer says on a given day that, ‘yeah, we can cram this much down the pipe’s throat, reliably, in compliance,’ that’s great. But let’s cut that. I’m saying that so we all remember in the future. Let’s not push the speedometer to 100 miles per hour. Let’s run at 80,” he told the committee members.

The department will know exactly how much capacity the renovated facility will allow after about a year, allowing for the seasonal fluctuation in sewer use. The facility runs about 10% capacity in the winter, which increases by about 90% to 100% during the summer.

“We should run a full season” to determine exactly how much capacity the facility can handle, Mr. Zimmerman said.

BPW member Ron Dufina said that he’d like to see 105 lots set aside for future Harrisonville sewer tie-ins, and others agreed that failing residential septic systems should be planned for.

The 105 households to which Mr. Dufina referred comprises about 80% of the Island’s yeararound population, who are on septic systems. When the sewer system was built, Harrisonville residents asked not to be hooked up. There is a sewer line there, but it was installed by Grand Hotel to service its Woodville employee housing units. A number of REUs have been set aside for undeveloped residential lots elsewhere, not for property in Harrisonville.

Earlier in the meeting, the committee heard from resident Travis Vartanian, who presented a letter to Mr. Zimmerman asking for an exception to the city’s REU moratorium because of his failed residential septic system. In his letter, Mr. Vartanian said his system is “broken beyond repair,” and, since he does not have enough property to increase the size of his drain field to meet health department standards, he must connect his property to the city’s sewer system.

The moratorium prevents issuance of any new REUs, but Mayor Doud said an exception to the moratorium was the only way to proceed.

“Well, I think this is a health, safety, welfare issue. I don’t think we have any choice on this one. This is an emergency situation,” she said as Mr. Vartanian expressed his concern that failure to allow his residential connection to the city sewer system would put his family and neighbors at risk.

The BPW recommended allowing the exception to city council, and council approved it shortly thereafter.

Mr. Vartanian’s predicament is a good example of what the city must consider when addressing future sewer capacity, according to Mr. Zimmerman, who said, “He’s not the only poor guy that’s going to have that happen to him. So we need to consider that about future capacity for the system.”

The committee also discussed whether the price of an REU can be increased to cover the cost of the treatment plant upgrades, resulting in old and new REU prices.

The REUs would be the “Same size, same shape, same color, but different price,” Mr. Zimmerman suggested. “We’ve been hobbled in the past because we’ve established an REU price that we can’t change because nothing else has changed. Now we are changing things.”

The approximate cost of the sewer renovation is $6.5 million, and the department will be able to attribute some of that cost onto sewer connection fees, according to city attorney Tom Evashevski.

“The system has been paid by user fees,” explained Mr. Evashevski. “We’ve been paying for the bonds we used to construct this system by user fees. So those who have not connected, haven’t contributed to paying for the sewer plant. That’s why they’re generally treated differently.”

In an e-mail to Mr. Zimmerman, Mr. Evashevski stated that the DPW can increase sewer connection fees if it has a “rational basis for the increase.”

One justification for increasing sewer connection fees would be to accommodate for inflation, Mr. Evashevski said, adding, “The fee has nothing to do with feelings for or against growth, or any other factor other than cost.”

Another possibility to increase fees would exist if a new, bondfunded project designed to increase sewer capacity occurred. Such a project would benefit only future users, since current users already have access to the city sewer.

“In such a case, I would think the entire cost could be allocated to future users in the form of increased connection fees,” he said, but he added that the current project is not designed to increase capacity.

“However,” he said, “to the extent capacity is increased and the cost of that increase can be determined, the future connection fees could include those costs. For example, if we could attribute a million dollars of the current project to increasing capacity by 200 REUs, each future connection could be charged an additional $5,000.00 connection fee, above and beyond the current connection fee.”

An REU now costs about $6,000.

City council member Jason St. Onge suggested most residents couldn’t afford a new fee amounting to $10,000 or $11,000. He also asked if there was a way to charge more for commercial REUs than for residential REUs, but Mr. Evashevski did not have an answer.

Some lots on Mackinac Island have committed REUs in anticipation of future sewer hook-up. Planning Commissioner Mary Dufina expressed concern over rate increases for those committed REUs, since they already have been reserved under the current capacity.

City councilman Dan Musser III and Mr. Moskwa disagreed.

“Things change and things start costing more,” said Mr. Musser. “You’ve had an opportunity to build there for a lot of years, and you chose not to. That’s your right,” a view Mr. Moskwa later echoed:

“If I chose not to build on my lot over on the golf course, I’m going to pay the fee when it comes up if I want to build there. If I sell it, the next guy’s going to have to pay the fee. It’s fair because I haven’t been utilizing it.”

Planning Commissioner Lee Finkel also added an option for the committee to consider, which would include people locking in the $6,000 price tag now and then paying the additional increase in fee when they decide to build in the future.

Councilman Sam Barnwell also pointed out that a portion of the DPW millage goes to the sewer plant, regardless of whether the taxpayer is on septic or sewer, and Mr. Moskwa clarified taxpayers are paying “three-quarters of one mill” for the renovation.

Concerns over how REUs are allocated were also expressed during the meeting. Councilwoman Anneke Myers said the committee may want to review the guidelines, emphasizing the importance of residential REUs.

Mr. Moskwa explained that the DPW has been using a restricted REU allocation process that reserves at least two REUs for residential use a year. The remaining eight REUs can be used by either residential or commercial, and are available on a first-come, firstserved basis.

Another question posed by Mr. Zimmerman addressed large projects that could potentially use up all of the REUs for any given year. He asked how the committee wants to handle such large projects as “the current practice is to extend the period of distribution.”

Mr. Barnwell wants the committee to consider changes of use for existing buildings. He advised against new projects using up all available REUs, which might prevent the conversion of a current business to a different type of use, perhaps from a store to a restaurant in downtown.

Mayor Doud said the REU discussions will continue at another committee meeting next month.

“I think that we should probably have another one of these meetings mid-June before the city decides what they’re going to do with the moratorium. Are we going to extend it? Are we going to lift it? Or what are we going to do?”

At that time, the committee will discuss a new REU allocation plan. The moratorium was imposed for six months, unless council devised such a plan sooner, Mrs. Myers pointed out.

The committee also discussed an unforeseen effluent pipe problem requiring repair that construction crews discovered in early April during the renovation project. Mr. Zimmerman said the project’s mechanical contractor acted fast, rerouting the cracked pipe after a matter of days. The situation was fixed as of April 30, he added.

The cost of the unforeseen expense will be covered by a maintenance and repair fund from the 2006 bond issue. The fund of $265,000 is set aside to cover such expense, Mr. Zimmerman said.

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