For months now, Bill Weitkemper has been waging a one-man struggle to start a public conversation about how best to repair and pay for our sewers. It’s too late for much conversation before next Tuesday’s vote on that $32 million sewer bond issue, but it seems to me that Bill’s argument deserves at least a last-minute hearing.
You remember Bill, don’t you? He ran a valiant but losing race last year for the Columbia City Council from my ward, the fourth. His most memorable campaign talking point was an insistence that the city is giving owners of major apartment complexes and office buildings an undeserved break on their water and sewer charges. I thought, and still think, that he makes a lot of sense.
He certainly has the credentials, having retired about a year ago as supervisor of sewer maintenance for the city.
If the bad news is that his critique hasn’t gained much traction, either in the council campaign or the run-up to our bond issue election, the good news is that he has attracted the attention of a couple of our most active council members, Barbara Hoppe and the guy who beat him last year, Ian Thomas.
I spent some time with Bill on Tuesday, including — in the spirit of full disclosure — a free lunch as a guest of the Cosmopolitan Luncheon Club, a congenial group that meets in the club room of the Hy-Vee supermarket on Nifong Boulevard.
Bill worries that we’re getting ahead of ourselves with this bond issue, which is projected to raise a typical household’s sewer charge by $3 a month over the next five years. He doubts that the work to be paid for will achieve the goal of satisfying the state Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has ordered the city to reduce substantially the amount of groundwater that infiltrates the sanitary sewers and overwhelms the treatment plant in periods of really wet weather.
The problem Bill sees is that much of groundwater — 65 percent by his estimate; 50 percent in a Public Works Department study — gets in through cracked pipes on private property in the oldest sections of the city. The bond issue money will pay for upgrades to the city-owned pipes but not those on private property.
Bill argues that the DNR issue should have been resolved before the bond issue vote. David Shorr, who used to head the DNR, is handling negotiations for the city.
David Sorrell, engineering manager for Public Works, gave me the results of the city groundwater study and pointed out that the department already has a program underway to replace old sewer lines on private property by reimbursing property owners for the work. He expressed optimism that the groundwater problem will be reduced significantly.
I also asked Mr. Sorrell about a $4 million piece of the bond issue that gives me pause. That’s to pay for extensions of sewer lines out to Midway and to the new Battle High School to accommodate future growth. Are we going to recapture that money from the developers of that future growth, I asked. His answer boiled down to “maybe.” History offers no ground for optimism.
Bill argues that passage of the bond issue will preclude the critical examination of policy that we need. Ian Thomas, who favors the bond issue, assured me that on that score at least, optimism is warranted.
He and Ms. Hoppe intend to raise with city staff the questions Bill is asking, he said. “I am open to some of his points of view.”
He added, “There hasn’t been enough time to get the conversation up to speed before the vote, but I’m intent on having that conversation.”
Ian’s position is that the problems of an aging sewer system in a rapidly growing city are so severe that they must be addressed. He also thinks that the language of the bond issue is broad enough to allow some flexibility in case some of Bill’s argument proves persuasive. Defeating the bond issue, he believes, would mean delay and higher cost.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Cosmopolitan Club, former Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless, a club member, made the pitch for the bond issue. Sewer repair is “a public health issue,” he said.
He pointed out that there is no organized opposition to the bond issue.
Bill responded, “I’m not very well organized.”
Maybe not, but his persistence serves us well.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.