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Hayden: Feds leaving us no choice on sewer rates

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | August 12, 2020 1:05 AM

The Hayden City Council gave an understanding but nonetheless full-throated defense of its decision to raise sewer rates Tuesday night, saying its share of upgrading the plant on Atlas Road is the inescapable cost of complying with federal requirements.

“My experience with the EPA has been: Every time you get close to being in compliance, they change the rules,” Councilman Richard Panabaker said. “They keep you behind the eight-ball all the dang time.”

The particular eight-ball in question is currently potted in front of the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board plant, which the city is partially responsible for keeping in federal compliance. The rate increase from $45.50 per month to $49 per month — billed every two months — will offset the costs of those upgrades and operational expenses priced at $9.5 million. One example of the required costs, for example, involves filtering the amount of phosphorus found in Hayden’s water, which typically measures around 5 pounds per day, rather than the federally-required 3.11 pounds per day.

That water, which eventually makes its way downstream to Spokane, is eyed carefully by the Environmental Protection Agency. Mayor Steve Griffitts told the council and attendees that Idaho is held to a higher standard than Washington because the state is upstream of the Spokane River, placing an undue and unrealistic burden on the citizens of Hayden to produce a cleaner standard of water than what is found naturally in rain.

“It is one of the most frustrating and difficult relationships I’ve had to deal with,” Griffitts said.

City administrator Brett Boyer informed the council during the meeting about the consequences for not performing the necessary work on the Atlas Road plant: Remaining out of compliance could cost the city as much as $36,500 in penalties per day, or just over $1 million per month. It’s a position into which Councilman Roger Saterfiel said he did not appreciate being wedged.

“Most of this sewer rate increase is because we’ve got to clean up the water, based on EPA projections set with the state of Washington,” Saterfiel said. “If Spokane isn’t meeting their regulations, let’s have Idaho clean up a little bit more … It’s not fair. It’s simply not fair.”

Saterfiel and the rest of the City Council listened Tuesday night during public testimony from retirees living on fixed incomes and residents who’d tracked the steady rise in sewer rates.

“My first bill was $36,” Hayden’s John Boyer told the council, “and it just goes up and up and up. We don’t have bad people here. We have bad processes.”

Some came to the city’s defense, including Ray Kimball of Post Falls.

“I’m a civil engineer,” Kimball said in his public comments. “Thankfully, I’m not a wastewater treatment plant engineer. I am familiar with … the regulations involved. Most people wash their dishes, wash their clothes, take a shower, but they don’t think about where the water goes. That is a fantastic luxury most people don’t have. You have to make tough decisions. You have to make decisions that probably won’t please everyone.”

Saterfiel admitted he was one of the everyone.

“I am one of the retirees on a fixed income,” he said, “and I have to pay the increases, as well. And I’m not happy about it. I don’t like it.”

Ultimately, though, faced with the prospect of more than $1 million a month in potential penalties levied against the city, council voted unanimously to approve the fee increase.

“I think we have living proof that we try to manage the city as well as we can, and I’m proud of it,” Saterfiel said. “I don’t even think we have a choice. We have to clean up the water.”