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Treatment plant employees last year installed an external line that bypasses one of its EQ basins, which was temporarily out of operation.

In a 5-2 vote on Tuesday night, the Yelm City Council approved a motion to enter into a $1.89 million design and planning agreement with Parametrix, a regional engineering firm, to jumpstart the process of fixing the city’s aging water reclamation facility.

Tuesday’s decision was the first step taken by council to move forward with a $22.2 million retrofit for the wastewater treatment facility. Council members Cody Colt and Joe DePinto were the two dissenting votes.

As part of the contract, Parametrix will develop design documents to convert the city’s existing sequential batch reactor basins into membrane bioreactors by utilizing portions of the current facility and systems.

This new technology and plan will allow the city to account for growth, address permit non-compliance issues, bring efficiencies to the system and provide much-needed upgrades to the 25-year-old facility.

During the meeting, Colt and council member James Blair questioned why the city would be charged $51,150 for 10 meetings with Parametrix staff. The cost, which comes out to roughly $206 an hour to meet with staff, is unusual, they said.

Brian Bunker, senior consultant with Parametrix, assured the council that these costs were necessary for the contractor to perform their services to help deliver the city the system it needs to function.

“We won’t be having meetings and charging the city for meetings that are truly just about getting facetime in order to promote and build our relationship. That is absolutely not part of this,” he said, adding that, for example, those funds will be used for site visits.

Bunker said, if the city wants, they can be efficient about their consultation as the contract is a not-to-exceed type budget. A few council members were unhappy with the charges, while others were understanding of the charges for service that were budgeted.

Colt said there were two reasons why he voted against the contract. The first was because of the uncertainty at hand with the continued spread of COVID-19. He originally wanted the vote to be delayed until April.

“I know we need to build a new facility. But right now, in the current situation, it wouldn't hurt to move the vote back three weeks,” Colt said after the meeting.

Funds to pay for the $1.89 million agreement will be routed from the city’s sewer capital reserves. There’s currently about $2 million in that fund, Colt said.

Colt said it was also a little too convenient that the entire contract’s cost came out to exactly how much they have in their reserves.

DePinto agreed with Colt. He said that just a couple weeks ago he was ready to approve the design, but the issues with COVID-19 and the economic impacts that have resulted, both locally and on the national level, have altered his perception.

“The only reason I voted no was due to the financial uncertainty that not only our city and state are in, but our entire nation,” DePinto wrote in an email. “Spending almost $2 million on this contract when we are unsure of the fiscal impacts that COVID-19 might have on city revenues is deeply concerning to me.”

The city council has been considering this project for many years now, but the council hadn’t made significant leeway on it until this year.

At a study session on Tuesday, March 3, Interim Public Works Director Stephen Clark described possible funding scenarios the council and executive branch could pursue following the decision.

Four options were originally put forward to the council, including an unlikely alternative to build a whole new facility (this option, which would cost more than $40 million-plus to build, was added to give perspective).

There was a notable point of emphasis for Clark, though, on the topic of gaining the attention of the grant authorities.

“The key thing is you need to be shovel ready. If you’re not shovel ready, you are not in a position to convince the lending and the grant agencies that we’re in position ready to go,” he said at the March 3 meeting. “People don’t want to see studies. They want to see results.”

A few weeks ago, staff from Parametrix presented their findings on which fix would best serve the city’s long-term interests and pocket books. They ultimately recommended the $22.2 million project.

They also presented three other possible fixes, but emphasized that their recommended option had the greatest chance of meeting long-term versatility needs through 2045, improving energy efficiency and decreasing the cost of maintaining the facility.

The city’s current wastewater treatment facility — which produces class A treated water that feeds into the Nisqually River, Cochrane Memorial Park and the Centralia Canal — is currently at the end of its useful life cycle and is in need of a major retrofit. Over the last few years, the city has run into problems with mounting repairs and will likely end up experiencing bigger problems down the road with regards to capacity if the issue is not fixed, city officials say.

Public Works Project Manager Patrick Hughes said the city currently sinks about $1 million a year in maintenance costs for the facility.

Revitalizing the current facility could still have an impact on the city’s water customers though. The extent of that impact at this stage is not known, Clark said.

Among the grants Clark said the city could possibly apply for are a Department of Ecology Centennial grant, worth $5 million, and a Department of Commerce CERB grant, which would award anywhere from $2 to $3 million.

If the city were to apply for and be awarded these grants, which Clark said is a possible best-case scenario, it’s not known at this point if that would affect customers’ water rates.

Clark said he’d recommend the city find ear-marked money from state and federal lawmakers to make up the gap.

At the March 3 meeting, DePinto said he doubted the city would be able to secure state capital funding for funding as low as $5 million for the project.

Clark said, in his career, he’s been able to tap upwards of $50 million from state and federal lawmakers for projects. He said the city and public works committee will need to be ready to jump on opportunities where they can, though.

“I think there’s also support in the Department of Ecology. We’ve worked very closely with the Department of Ecology through the current operation, and they know that they want to have this system going,” Clark said in reference to the city’s water facility being the first in the state to produce class A reclaimed water. “They’re going to be bending over backwards really to help the city move forward with this thing, so I think that’s a plus that a lot of cities just don’t have.”

Now that the council has decided to move forward on a preferred fix to the facility, engineers will meet with the city in April to round out the total cost and begin the design phase. A design phase proposal would then be brought to the city council.

From there, the city executive branch and council will reach out to state and federal agencies to gage what funding is available for the project.

The city council could see a new rate model in May, according to Clark’s presentation. Most of the funds customers currently pay go toward operations, construction and maintenance of the current facility.

A typical single family home pays about $161.23 per month for all water-related utilities, the city’s website says. That same home with a single tank pays about $76 per month on wastewater utilities.

At the March 24 meeting, council members also recommended lowering water rates for customers experiencing financial distress from the spread of COVID-19. More discussion is expected on that initiative.

The council also passed two ordinances at the meeting to defer water and sewer payments for up to one year for customers, if necessary. The city also said it will not shut off water services for delinquent payment.

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