Townships consider cost agreements for sewer infrastructure
by BETH ALTENA
“What you see happening in 2012 is what we anticipated in 1997 and perhaps earlier.” During Plainfield Township’s Monday, July 2 board meeting, Plainfield Township Manager Robert Homan discussed a proposed agreement for the North Kent Sewer Authority (NKSA) management and staff replace the Kent County DPW in providing management and operational services for the North Kent Sewage Disposal System starting October 1 of this year.
The board considered aspects of an agreement which will divide up how members of the NKSA will maintain the infrastructure—pipes, motors, lift stations, etc.—which takes wastewater from residential homes and businesses in each community to the wastewater treatment plant on Coit Avenue. The City of Rockford and the townships of Alpine, Cannon, Courtland and Plainfield make up the NKSA.
Of the five communities that have been allied in the creation of NKSA, two, Courtland Township and the City of Rockford, would continue maintaining their individual collection systems under the terms of the agreement. Rockford has maintained its own sewer structure with their Department of Public Works for decades. Courtland Township a year ago hired a private company to maintain the sewer lines and take care of any failures of the system as they arise. However, both Rockford and Courtland Township will participate in the agreement as NKSA partners and co-owners of those portions of the North Kent system used by more than one community. An example of this is a large sewer main that runs down Belding Road, carrying wastewater from Courtland and Cannon townships.
Homan refers to the document as an addition to the original agreement creating the NKSA. An agreement with Kent County for maintenance of the sewer lines expired in 2008, and was not renewed, but the county agreed to a five-year extension to give communities time to decide how and who would be responsible for the operation of the system in the future. NKSA’s solution is to do it themselves.
With a competent staff of six now managing and operating NKSA’s PARCC Side Clean Water Plant and the addition of two former county employees plus one more person, members of NKSA believe by taking the job into their own hands they will maintain better control of their system and save money as well.
Scott Schoolcraft, assistant superintendent at the plant, said his team will “take over the collection system’s ‘boots on the ground.’ We can incorporate the same staff [already working at the plant].”
He said the plant—which was built by NKSA in response to unacceptable cost increases and restrictions from the City of Grand Rapids for wastewater treatment and began operations in 2008—has a sophisticated computerized record-keeping operational system that allows automated control, an advantage the county did not have.
Schoolcraft said operations and maintenance by NKSA will be considerably cheaper than the county was charging. “Not to criticize the county, but they have a lot of overhead we don’t have. There are a lot of people over them and [NKSA communities] are paying for that.”
As a specific example, Schoolcraft noted that Kent County pays rent on the buildings where they keep their trucks. NKSA’s PARCC side water plant has a large building on site that can house the trucks and equipment needed for maintenance operations. The building was put up when the plant was in construction and after it was no longer needed was left in place for possible future use.
Attorneys for NKSA and members have been working on the agreement over the past eight months, ironing out details. In addition, the staff at the plant has been working with the county’s department that maintained the sewer system, preparing for a go-live date of October 1. One member of the county’s crew has already been hired by NKSA, and Gary Seger, the county’s utility services superintendent, will also join NKSA’s staff and provide his considerable experience to the team.
Seger was also at the Monday meeting and described progress toward making the transition from county control to the control of NKSA.
“This was inevitable; this is the best move ever,” he described.
Seger said his department of nine people, plus himself, is now reduced to just him. “It is a very exciting time… At the time this was announced I had nine people working for me. Now I have zero. Hopefully this will go so smoothly residents won’t even know the difference.”
Homan said incorporating the maintenance of the lines and equipment in-house was a decision made by NKSA’s board and has to be agreed to by each member.
“There is no way a private contractor could do it cheaper,” said Homan.
He said in some instances it makes sense to privatize a job, but not in this case. Running the operations of the sewer service is the reason NKSA was formed, and it doesn’t make sense to take a system that has millions invested into it and is depended on by thousands of residents and turn it over to an outside company.
“That’s what municipalities are for,” said Homan.