Seeley Lake to get second shot at sewer project; Tester adds funding

(Missoula Current)

The residents of Seeley Lake may get another crack at a centralized sewer system this fall, roughly one year after the community panned a $12 million bond that would have paid for the system.

This time, however, they’ll have an added $600,000 to contribute to the project’s costs – funding announced this week by Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

“The difference between the engineers’ estimate and what we have in funding is about $2 million, excluding the $600,000 we just got,” Greg Robertson, the county’s director of public works, said Thursday. “So we just cut that gap by a quarter. We’ve been working with Tester’s staff now for several years to try and keep the project top of mind, and they followed through.”

While the project remains controversial among some Seeley Lake residents, Robertson said the effort will be brought forward again this fall in an effort to convince property owners of the need.

Advocates of the project contend that leaking septic systems are contaminating the groundwater, with effluent seeping into area rivers and lakes. The community depends upon its summer recreation, and polluted water could be bad for business.

But whether that’s enough to convince property owners to repay a bond remains to be seen. Voters turned down last year’s proposal, though Robertson said the vote was not a referendum on whether a sewer project took place.

Rather, he said, it sought to determine if the debt could rely upon the default payments that might occur.

“The whole public vote thing is not a statutory requirement,” Robertson said. “It was only required as a condition of the funding offer from USDA Rural Development to show community support for the project.”

The Seeley Lake Sewer Board has since appealed Rural Development’s decision to withdraw funding from the project as a result of the failed vote.

In its appeal, the board argued that a subset of people who got to vote on the project were not the same people that would be asked to repay the debt. Rural Development agreed, giving advocates another crack at funding and moving the project forward.

That will likely come this year when the sewer board takes up a resolution noting its intent to issue bonds and assess properties. That would be followed by a 30-day protest period.

“At the end of that, if more than 50 percent of the property owners bearing the cost of improvement – and that’s an important point – file a protest, then the process is basically dead,” Robertson said. “They’ll know what their final assessments are. By statute, we can’t exceed that amount.”

Tester this week secured $600,000 for the Seeley Lake project as part of a larger $2 million deal to update critical rural water infrastructure in seven Montana communities.

Tester secured the funds through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Water Resources Development Act.

The funds are available to local governments to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities, update water supply infrastructure, provide environmental restoration, and improve surface water resource protection and development.

“Clean, reliable water is critical to a healthy economy,” Tester said.  “These resources will help Montana communities make essential infrastructure upgrades, support good-paying jobs, and increase access to clean drinking water and wastewater.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com