Equipment at end of its useful life, consultant says

By Jennifer Eisenbart

Staff Writer

Twenty years ago, the City of Burlington borrowed money and went forth with a new wastewater treatment facility.

The new facility has paid off in terms of profits for the utility from processing waste from outside the city. But now the city is looking at a new expenditure – $7.6 million to upgrade and replace equipment that is apparently close to its breaking point.

During a two-hour presentation at the current facility Tuesday night, Stacy Cooke of Donohue and Associates laid out the replacement plan and its benefits for members of the City Council.

The purpose of the meeting was to brief the council on the needed work, but only three of the eight council members made Tuesday’s session. Mayor Bob Miller said that the other aldermen would be briefed before the start of the budget process – which will include the project.

While the $7.6 million cost will be funded by a low-interest Clean Water Fund loan – the same fund that paid for the new plant 20 years ago – city residents could be looking at an increase in sewer rates.

The increase, however, might not be needed to pay off the loan. The city paid off the 1991 Clean Water Fund loan this year, and in spite of losing about $550,000 from two major businesses in capital payments, will still be about $1 million ahead per year.

The funds brought in through a sewer rate hike could provide the utility with a buffer fund when new repairs are needed down the road. The topic dominated most of the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting.

Currently, there is about $800,000 in the equipment replacement fund. Currently, the idea is to place roughly $196,000 in the fund every year.

However, as both Miller and Alderman Tom Vos said, it might be time to increase the amount in that fund.

“What can we do as a community … what do we do to phase this in over a period of time, so we don’t find ourselves having to spend these amounts of dollars?” Vos asked.

The work required isn’t the result of misuse of the equipment – it’s simply the wear and tear on the equipment over 20 years. As Cooke explained, the equipment is designed to last about 20 years.

Even if the repairs and replacements are approved in the 2012 budget, though, it’ll likely be another 18 months before all the work is finished. That number comes into play when listening to comments from the wastewater treatment operators who were present Tuesday night.

When Miller asked what would happen if the city decided not to do the work, there was initially an estimate of one to three years on how long the equipment would last.

However, one operator pointed out, some pieces of equipment have major issues now, and repairs are being done on nearly a daily basis.

The $7.6 million would replace a number of different parts in the clarification system at the plant – parts that pull pollutants out of the water as well as help water clarity. Those costs would also involve constructing a new high-strength waste facility.

The facility would be able to handle waste from, for example, ethanol plants. Department of Public Works Supervisor Connie Wilson said the city has already been contacted by a broker who says he could have the material to the plant as soon as it is constructed.

That could translate into $200,000 generated each year, which would help pay off the loan faster.

In addition, the city would be saving money on energy by putting in better equipment, and there could be other benefits coming from the Clean Water Fund.

The biggest point made Tuesday, though, was that this wasn’t a project that could wait.

“So, in one to three years, we’re going to be in doo-doo this deep?” Miller asked, gesturing with his hand up to his forehead.

“Yes,” Cooke answered.