City Council discusses wastewater delays

City Council discusses  wastewater delaysBy BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Ongoing concerns about the city’s wastewater treatment facility project were renewed last month when the city heard proposed departmental budgets for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Public Works Director Bard Lower gave an overview of what the department has accomplished and what is planned for the coming year.

While the Public Works organization uses only about 3 percent of the city’s $17.3 million general fund, other sources include the Measure V sales tax as well as state and federal transportation funds. But the most-discussed topic was the city’s $27 million wastewater reserve fund.

The fund has been growing since the city voted to triple wastewater fees in 2012 with plans to build a new wastewater treatment facility. There has been little apparent progress according to the public, but City Manager Ron Strand said the time has been spent negotiating for an easement with the Navy to build the facility.

Lower said the lease agreement should be completed soon, but the city would have to negotiate an operations agreement with the Navy after that.

Strand clarified that the last outstanding item regarding the easement agreement is determining who is responsible for disposing of sludge waste located on the site and who will be responsible in the future.

“Do we have a tentative completion date on this agreement?” asked Vice Mayor Wallace Martin.

“We are meeting regularly and working through the issues,” said Strand.

“We should be able to come up with a goal here,” said Martin, who has called for more than a year for the wastewater project to be expedited. “At what point is the end point for us?”

Strand said it would cost an estimated $100,000-$150,000 to properly dispose of the current sludge piles, but that ultimately the agreement needs to determine who is responsible for disposal in the future.

“We’re looking at investing more than $200,000 in machinery, equipment, software and building to maintain our existing [treatment plant],” said Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens. “Spending so much time negotiating who’s cleaning up a pile for $100,000 seems like it’s wasteful.”

Mayor Peggy Breeden said that most of the sludge is probably being produced by the Navy, so she doesn’t think the city should be held financially responsible.

“Those people ought to pay their fair share,” said Breeden. “Where it came from and how we eliminate it in the future are equally important.”

Stephens said the longer we delay, the more taxpayers are paying for the plant as building and materials costs continue to increase.

Martin said that with $27 million in reserve, there is no reason not to pay for the sludge removal and negotiate a reimbursement later if it is necessary.

“There are other issues that we have to be very careful of as a city,” said Strand. “This is why we don’t negotiate stuff in public. If at any time we wish to break off negotiations and build our own, we’re more than welcome to. But if we’re going to have the Navy as a customer, we’re going to have to be patient and go through the process.

“These conversations we’re having, these meetings, are putting the Navy at an advantage in our negotiations because they know we’re in a hurry to get it done.”

Martin said that it was “crazy” to think the Navy would have the idea that the city was in a hurry to complete the project.

“This has been going on for years and years and years,” said Martin. “The bottom line is I would like to state that we set a cutoff date on this. We did this a year ago. Yet we’re still here and we’ve got no end in sight.”

Martin has asked that an item to set a decision date be placed on a future council agenda.

In addition to wastewater, the Public Works department’s responsibilities include city engineering, streets and transit. The city council is scheduled to approve the 2019-2020 budget during its June 19 meeting.

For more info visit ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Story First Published: 2019-06-14