COLUMBIA — Two ballot issues to pay for sewage treatment in Columbia and Boone County were promoted together, and voters responded in kind.
Columbia voters favored a $77 million bond issue by a nearly 5-1 margin, with 84.12 percent voting yes and 15.88 percent voting no. Voters county-wide, including those in the city, also endorsed $21 million in bonds for the Boone County Regional Sewer District by a nearly 4-1 margin with 79.72 voting yes and 20.28 voting no.
Both bond issues will result in significant rate increases for customers of the city and the sewer district; voters were told the rise would be steeper — and come sooner — without the bonds. Without the bonding authority, both utilities would need to come up with the revenue for projects designed to meet state-mandated stream quality regulations up front.
Supporters for both measures — members of the two committees formed to promote the issues, including Columbia Public Works employees and sewer district board members — gathered at Boone Tavern after the polls closed. When the first results came in showing both measures with about 80 percent support, the group cheered. Several people said, “Wow.”
“I expected this to be a success, but I was little surprised by the margin,” said Steve Hunt, the city environmental services manager. Hunt said it helped that the city and the sewer district worked together. “It showed good cooperation,” he said.
“You can never be too confident with what people are going to do with their right to vote,” said David Shorr, the vice president of the sewer district board of directors. “I think we did a good job at showing people that all this is the right to borrow money.”
Shorr said that he lives in the county, so his rates will double along with the rest of sewer district’s customers over five years.
“I’m not thrilled that we have to double rates,” he said. “But this goes to following the law. We’ll do the best we can to comply with the law.”
The bulk of the city bonds — $77 million — are earmarked for upgrades to the waste-water treatment plant on Gillespie Bridge Road, with the remainder going to the collection system. The city must add equipment to maintain plant reliability and reduce ammonia — a state mandate — which can harm fish and wildlife, out of wastewater.
The bonds will also finance updates for equipment that dates to the plant’s opening in 1983, updates to the grit handling and sludge removal systems, and a new odor-control system. The plan also includes $3 million for sewer extensions for future employment centers in the Bear Creek watershed.
While most of these city projects are not state-mandated, Hunt said the updates are necessary. They will not add significant capacity, he said, but rather ensure plant reliability.
The average rate for a residential sewage customer in the city is expected to increase from $12.25 to $20.80 a month in the next five years. New connection fees are slated to go from $600 to $800 during the period.
The sewer district’s spending plan includes the consolidation of several treatment plants and lagoons into two regional facilities. The plan will also close seven facilities and connect those facilities’ customers to the city system. Ultraviolet disinfection will be added to three facilities to treat wastewater for bacteria.
Sewer district customers can expect a 50 percent increase in rates over the next five years to pay for the upgrades. District officials had warned that, without the bond money, state-mandated disinfection limits would have required funds up front, meaning rates would have increased even more.
With the passage of both bond issues, city and the sewer district officials can breathe a sigh of relief — for the short-term. The spending plans for both bond issues extend five years.
That means that depending on growth, additional stream regulations for things such as nitrogen and phosphorus, local voters could be asked for additional financing as early as 2013 or 2014, said Tom Ratermann, the sewer district’s manager.