By Martin Kidston
Over the next two weeks, residents of Seeley Lake will decide whether to utilize a combination of grants and loans to establish a community sewer district, or walk away from the funding and risk further groundwater contamination.
Fearing the system’s cost to residents of the small mountain community, an advocate of the project asked Missoula County commissioners Tuesday to pledge up to $536,000 to lower the cost to Seeley Lake residents.
But with ballots already out, commissioners balked at the request, saying the county didn’t have that kind of money on hand. It could only generate such funding by raising taxes on all county residents, which currently poses legal and philosophical questions.
“We’d have to tax all residents of Missoula County in order to raise this kind of money,” said Andrew Czorny, the county’s chief financial officer. “If we had a seeping of the rivers and lakes – if we had actual proof of contamination – it might sway things, but we’re so late in the game right now.”
Walt Hill, a resident of Seeley Lake and an advocate of creating the Seeley Lake Sewer District, said aging and ill-maintained septic systems are contaminating the groundwater, leaving effluent to seep into area rivers and lakes, including Seeley Lake itself.
The community has developed a plan for a treatment system to address the problem, though building it carries a cost of $15 million to $20 million. Constructing the system would occur in four phases and eventually serve 525 property owners.
Hill said $8 million in grants have been procured to cover Phase 1, which would connect 208 property owners to the system. But the first phase also includes a $4 million loan, making it too much for the property owners to bear.
With the grant and loan combined, he estimated the sewer payment on a single property at roughly $100 a month. That includes $28 a month for debt service and roughly $75 a month for operation and maintenance of the system.
“It’s a lot by any standard, and by Seeley Lake standards, it’s impossible,” Hill said. “If this doesn’t go through at some point in the reasonably foreseeable future, it’s all going to come back on Seeley Lake and Missoula County.”
Looking to win support for the measure, Hill asked commissioners to cap the fee on Seeley Lake property owners at $40 a month. That would require the county to cover the difference with $536,000.
“It’s for the good of all of us,” Hill said. “I suspect there are nitrates coming from Seeley Lake that end up in the drinking water of Missoula. It’s all downhill and it’s just where water goes. We’re putting out more than 10 milligrams per liter in nitrates. That’s not just a Seeley Lake problem, it’s a Missoula problem.”
But commissioners believe the data thus far is inconclusive and doesn’t yet warrant a countywide hazard. As it stands, they said, the data would not permit them to tax all county residents to pay for a sewer system for 500 residents of Seeley Lake.
“Some people have a very conservative interpretation, that if (nitrates) ever go over, it’s a problem,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “Other people have a different interpretation, saying out of 100 samples, it was over twice. I think there’s a debate on where it’s at.”
With ballots already out, commissioners and county staff agreed it was too late in the process to amend how the system would be paid for, though that could be revisited at a future time depending on how Seeley Lake votes.
If the majority of residents vote against the system, Seeley Lake will lose the $12 million in funding that’s now in place to get the project started.
“If the election turns out to fail, the grants that are currently in place for the project will have to be returned,” said Greg Robertson, the county’s director of public works. “Rural Development will walk away from the project. They’ve told the community that, and they’ve told the district that. Seeley Lake would have to start from square one.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org