A growth watchdog group is challenging the city’s plan to spend millions of dollars to extend sewer lines into new areas, arguing it promotes urban sprawl.
The money to improve and extend the sewer lines — $18.5 million — would come from one of two bond issues to be included on the Nov. 4 ballot. The other is a $28.3 million bond for water projects.
Representatives of the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition met with Columbia officials Wednesday to hear details about the bond issues. The bonds are intended to pay for upgrades to aging sewer and water systems and anticipate the demands of growth on the utilities.
At the meeting, Jan Weaver, one of four panelists who led the discussion, said extending sewers promotes development in Columbia and usually determines where construction will happen. Other speakers echoed her concern.
“The sewer is a big controlling factor (in development),” said John Coffman, a panelist and former Sixth Ward councilman.
City Manager Ray Beck said he believes sewer extensions guide city growth but do not promote it. He argued growth will happen even without sewer lines, creating the need for more private lagoons and waste-water treatment plants that fall short of city standards and discharge into area creeks.
“We need to be ahead of development and guide it with our utilities,” Beck said. “If people come into the city, we have to plan well for them, so it doesn’t have to be redone.”
“That’s what I call smart growth,” Beck said.
Panelist Ben Londeree said his calculations indicate 65 percent of the bond issue’s proceeds would be spent to extend sewer lines as well as on other growth issues.
Public Works Director Lowell Patterson conceded that development can be an unintended result of sewer extensions. His presentation, however, emphasized those sewer projects that would address problems with existing lines, such as those in County House Branch neighborhood and near University Hospital.
“Let’s take care of what we’ve got,” Patterson said. “We’re replacing lines that are bad.”
The water bond issue received much less scrutiny. Water and Light Director Richard Malon said proceeds would pay for a host of projects designed to improve the city’s ability to treat, store and distribute water. Major projects include a new 36-inch main from the McBaine water treatment plant, a new line under Interstate 70 to serve the Valley View area and improved distribution for the northeast part of the city.
The projects would double the city’s water treatment capacity to 48 million gallons per day. Malon noted that the city set a record for water use in August and nearly reached the city’s limit.
“We’re getting close to capacity,” he said. “If the fire at the Heidelberg had happened a few days later, we might have been on water restrictions. They pumped about a million gallons on that thing.”
If the two bond issues are approved, the average residential utility customer will see gradual increases in their monthly bills that by 2010 will total $6.22 per month. That charge will not decrease once the bonds are paid off, Beck said.
Beck said that if voters do not approve the bond issues, the projects still will have to be done so that Columbia’s water and sewer systems comply with state and federal standards. That could mean raising taxes for all city residents.
“This is the least expensive method without a property tax increase,” Beck said.
Also on the November ballot, Columbia and Boone County voters will see a $3.85 million bond issue proposal from the Boone County Regional Sewer District.