Stinky Situations

If passed, a Pima County bond question would authorize more than $150 million in sewer-related spending

Something stinks with the $150 million sewer package proposal--Pima County bond question No. 6 on next month's ballot--according to opponents. These skeptics insist the bad smell goes beyond the rancid odor that sometimes emanates from the Roger Road sewage treatment facility.

The County's Wastewater Management Department has been embroiled in controversy for years concerning a number of issues. These include allegations of fiscal irregularities that led to deficit spending, charges now being examined by an audit. The department was also criticized for failing to adequately maintain aging sewer lines in the central city, which may have contributed to the devastating westside break two years ago.

Another complaint leveled against the department is how proceeds from the last sewer bond election have been spent. That 1997 ballot proposition, which was narrowly approved by voters, authorized $105 million for 17 different projects, one of which was $3.5 million for miscellaneous facilities.

This insignificant listing eventually evolved into a new treatment plant at Randolph Park. Although initially estimated to cost $18 million, it grew like a well-watered desert weed. Today, the price tag is $40 million. To help pay for it, a majority of the Pima County Board of Supervisors recently approved taking almost $12 million in funds from seven other '97 bond projects.

That move, and many others, have upset Republican Supervisor Ray Carroll, the Wastewater Department's harshest critic.

"It's not prudent to throw an additional revenue stream at an organization that can't account for what it now has," Carroll says of the proposed bond package. "I have misgivings about it, and am not supportive at this point."

Mary Schuh, president of the Pima Association of Taxpayers, more than agrees: "I don't want to give the Wastewater Department a darn dime." Although she understands that some sewer improvements are needed, Schuh believes the audit should have been completed before a vote.

"I don't trust 'em, and I don't believe any of them," Schuh says of the county officials who will control the bond funds if they are approved. "There is just an odor about the whole bond project, and I'm voting 'no.'"

That figurative smell hanging over the Wastewater Department is complemented by the impressive stink that occasionally rises from the Roger Road treatment plant and floats across nearby Interstate 10, offering an unusual welcome to those new to Tucson. A serious problem for many years, in 1997, Pima County voters approved $2.35 million to address the odor issue, and neighbors were told it would be solved by 2001.

Kathleen Chavez, director of the Wastewater Department, acknowledges that has not happened, but does believe things are getting better at the Roger Road plant. Physical changes have been made, and new chemicals are added to combat the odor, she says. In addition, a study has been prepared on what additional work is required to address the problem. The result, Chavez says, is that neighbors of the facility aren't as angry as they once were.

Carroll sees--and smells--things differently. He has toured each of the county's numerous treatment plants and declares Roger Road the worst of the lot.

"It made me gag," he says, "and I've got a cast-iron stomach. People were promised the problem would be dealt with, and it wasn't."

Chavez indicates there is at least $4 million in the current bond proposal for more odor control work at Roger Road, funds included within a total of $20 million slated to rehabilitate the facility. But that is just the third largest of the 12 sewage projects planned if ballot question No. 6 passes.

Estimates are that one-half of the $150 million total will be used to accommodate new population growth, with the remainder to deal with repair and regulatory compliance of the existing wastewater system. Thus, if approved, the bonds will be paid for during the next five years through both increased individual monthly user fees and additional costs for new construction to connect to a sewer.

According to the county, the average single family household's monthly wastewater bill is expected to go from the present $13.11 to $19.97 by 2009, a 52 percent increase. This figure includes a 4 percent rise already approved by the supervisors, set to go into effect on July 1.

Today, the typical connection fee for a new house is $2,441. If the bonds are approved, that figure is expected to rise to $4,560 (an 87 percent increase) to cover the cost of growth-related sewer projects.

Despite the prospect of considerably higher fees along with the unresolved financial problems at the Wastewater Department, central city resident Matt Somers supports the bonds. He believes the bad publicity the agency has received is unfair, and thinks approval of the ballot question will help prevent more disasters like the westside line break of 2002.

"We really need to take a look at the maintenance of our sewers," he says, "so that doesn't happen again."

Environmentalist Carolyn Campbell agrees. The vice-chair of Pima County's citizen bond committee says, "One-half the money is being spent on maintenance in the urban core. That's a large investment in the existing system." Plus, she adds, rule changes have given the committee greater oversight responsibility, hopefully resulting in more accountability by the Wastewater Department.

"I'm supporting the bonds," Campbell summarizes, "because people are still going to be going to the bathroom and taking showers."