Pictured: An unusually large crowd awaited the Tri-City Regional Sanitary District board at its Sept. 4 meeting.
In the wake of a series of meetings where questions were deferred away from the TRSD board, a representative from USDA Rural Development and the project’s lead engineer attended the Sept. 4 meeting to answer questions from a public skeptical of the project.
About 45 people crowded into the small meeting room at the Tri City Fire Department in Claypool for a rapid-fire question and answer session lasting nearly two hours.
A portion of the meeting was devoted to responding to reports of the overall project costs that have appeared in the Silver Belt.
USDA-RD State Director Jeff Hayes stated that he was unsure where the reported $92 million overall cost for the proposed sewer system originated and that TRSD estimates are in the $69 million to $73 million range, with $33 million of that potentially in the form of loans, while the balance would be federal grants.
Hayes added the timeline for the first phase would be in the one to two-year range, rather than three or four years. He also reported that the cost of removing existing or failing septic systems of cesspools is figured into the cost of building the system.
“The [funding] will cover the hookups and the costs associated with abandoning cesspools and septic systems so there will be no out-of-pocket costs for the homeowners,” he said.
Hayes, along with Jake Garrett, manager of wastewater for the Gila County Community Development Department, discussed at length the reasons for the project and the consequences associated with failed systems.
Garrett said that when a septic system stops working, the owner has to address it immediately, particularly if it starts to “surface.”
“If you don’t, it’s my job to see that you do,” he said. “It’s my job to shut you down, to red tag your home and to take whatever appropriate action at that point in time, including turning off your water to your home.”
Garrett reiterated that cesspools have been prohibited by law since 1976 and that there is not an option to fix a failed system, although if the site meets certain criteria — sufficient area and depth of soil — a new septic system is an option.
“There’s a large design part that goes into this,” he said. “If it all works, hot diggety dog you can do it. … If you’re lucky you can get off at about $16,000-$17,000, something like that, to replace your cesspool.
But Hayes focused on the USDA’s motivation to fund the project and see it through, which is the economic development of the region.
“We also see this as an economic issue,” Hayes said. “You have a huge amount of homes that are blighted already or abandoned. You’re losing housing. You have no housing for people to come in to work if they do want to live here. We had one person tell us they have staff busing in just to support their people.”
He added that fixing up homes can lead to future partnerships with USDA and other entities that provide low-income housing.
“We see it as a long-term economic fix — not only a sewer fix — both on the economic and housing side because it’s needed,” he said. “If we don’t do something now, it’s going to be another 10 years down the road.”
Several residents, such as those in the Vertical Heights area, were concerned that they would not be serviced by the system but would still be taxed.
Bond counsel for the district, Fred Rosenfeld, said that anyone not serviced by the system would have the opportunity to opt out, but there will be a process wherein they will have to request removal from the district.
“It’s not a vote; it is a right to protest,” he said. “It will be taken up by the board on a lot-by-lot basis.”
Residents that fall in areas that will not receive service but are on the TRSD map and are being taxed will have a 15-day window to “protest,” then depend on the district to remove them from the tax rolls.
The protest window opens once there have been bids submitted for the project, likely taking place in October.
The district will schedule a series of meetings when the project is approved in order to disseminate as much information as possible and expect to release an executive report on the Preliminary Engineering Report (PRE) necessary to secure the USDA funds.
Another issue that was addressed was district mapping, as some of the areas of the TRSD are already being serviced by Miami or Globe. Several community members wondered why the district has not worked with Miami and Globe to take advantage of existing infrastructure and to avoid the costs of creating a standalone system.
But the lead engineer for the project, Mike Krebs of PACE: Advanced Water Engineering in Scottsdale, said that he worked with the district on cost analysis and determined there would only be a savings of about $200 tapping into existing systems.
He also stated that when they tried to negotiate with Miami, the Town’s administration at the time was unable to give audited financials with solid numbers on the costs of that system.
“We’ve spent countless hours and held somewhere between 60-100 meetings with the town of Miami, talking about what it would cost and what could we negotiate,” Krebs said. “I’m just going to lay it out: the town did not know what their costs were. We asked them for years. I can show you emails. They don’t know what the cost is. How can you be operating a plant for two or three years and not know what your costs are?”
The Town of Miami is currently getting a $25 million sewer upgrade that is also funded by USDA-RD and Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA), another source of infrastructure funding for rural Arizona towns.
When the question of Globe’s system came up, Globe Mayor Al Gameros and City Manager Paul Jepson who were in attendance asked questions about mapping and future partnerships.
Gameros, who owns two homes in the TRSD but is not able to run for a board position because his voting residence is in Globe, is also chair of Central Arizona Governments, a coalition of 26 small towns that must approve the TRSD plans via a Section 208 Water Quality Management Plan Amendment.
Gameros thanked the board for publicly giving “the numbers we’ve been looking for,” and pointed out there was a section of the TRSD Declared Management Area (DMA) that is part of the Globe service area.
Both he and Jepson asked that the map be updated to reflect that.
“If you have no intention to serve that area, we have no problem with that,” Jepson said. “But it is our request that you leave it out of your 208 map.”
Jepson also stated the City of Globe would be interested in a partnership in a future phase of the project — Phase III encompasses the disputed area — and would be willing to set up meetings to negotiate in the future.
Stephen Palmer, who is running for a TRSD board seat in the General Election this November, was on hand as well, questioning the board about its intentions in the Miami area.
He asked the board if the sewer system presaged incorporating the areas on the map to make a new city.
The board explained that was not the case, but Palmer was adamant that there should be partnerships to create a more regional approach to the problems.
“I want to try to work with the Town of Miami and the City of Globe,” he said in a post-meeting interview. “I want people to know that if they vote for me, they’re voting to bring the district into the surrounding towns.”
Krebs assured those gathered at the meeting that the TRSD board and the people working with them were doing what they are impelled to do through Arizona statues and said more information will be coming in the near future.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said. “We can’t talk about stuff if we don’t have all the information.… we need to make sure we have our ducks in a row.”
The board finished the meeting by paying its bills. Attorney Bill Clemmens submitted a $9,916.17 bill for services rendered and expense incurred, which was approved for payment.
The next meeting will take place Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 5:15 p.m. The board may seek a larger venue if attendance numbers remain high.