The City Council on Tuesday agreed to spend more than $5 million to upgrade and expand the community's waste-water treatment plant, with much of that cost expected to be passed on eventually to residential and commercial users.
Council members approved a staff recommendation to accept a $5.1-million bid from Kiewit Pacific Co., a Ventura company that submitted the lowest of seven bids to upgrade the Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant.
"It's something that needs to be done," Councilwoman Judy Lazar said before Tuesday's meeting.
"It's a combination of having a system that is aging and increasingly higher [water quality] standards that we as a community are required to meet," she said. "But they are expensive standards."
Under the contract awarded Tuesday, Kiewit Pacific will be responsible for upgrading several of the plant's current digestors and constructing an additional one. Digestors are huge concrete tanks in which solid sludge is allowed to decompose.
Increasing the capacity of the treatment plant from 10 million to 14 million gallons daily is the first phase of a 15-year, $75-million capital improvement goal that city officials previously approved.
The expansion portion of the project will be paid for by anticipated new customers, who will be charged extra fees to hook into the system. The replacement and upgrade portions of the renovation will be financed by current customers.
City engineers, who originally estimated this project would cost about $6.5 million, said the work is badly needed.
"Certain parts of the plant are about 35 years old," said Dennis H. Nelson, public works director. "What we need to do is go in and replace those components that have reached the end of their useful life."
Another recommendation approved late Tuesday calls for the City Council to consider a rate increase of nearly 70% to help pay for the renovation and expansion. A public hearing on the proposed rate revision is scheduled for Oct. 17.
Customers now pay $10.50 a month for waste-water treatment service, but public works officials are recommending a $7-per-month increase. Also, the city intends to increase hookup fees from $3,900 to $5,300 sometime later this year.
Even with the proposed rate hike, Nelson said, customers would pay less than most Ventura County residents. Elsewhere in the county, sewer fees range from $16.50 to $27 a month, Nelson said. But Councilwoman Elois Zeanah questioned the recommendation to increase rates.
"It's terribly expensive," she said before Tuesday's meeting. "We don't have the evidence to support that conclusion [that rates should be raised]."
Zeanah said city policy calls for new development to pay for increased water-treatment costs. Current customers, however, should not be asked to fund expansions to the plant, she said.
But Nelson said the financing plan his office has recommended calls for new customers to pay for the expansion plans and for current and new customers to share any replacement costs.
"Existing users pay for a portion of the cost of coming into compliance with the new [standards]," he said. "Then they will have to pay for their share of replacing various parts" of the system.
Zeanah, the only council member to vote against the contract, said she did not have enough information to support the proposal. She asked city staff about alternatives to raising sewer rates as well as the possibility of selling the waste-water treatment plant to a private company.
But Otto G. Stoll, chairman of a citizens committee that studied improving the city's waste-water treatment system, said privatization was not a viable alternative.
"The responsibility for being good at this is sufficiently awesome that we did not want it in private hands," Stoll said. "If you do it wrong, people die."
New legislation requiring more stringent water-treatment standards also have forced the renovation, Nelson said. Not only will the treated water be cleaner, but new technology will be implemented, he said.
"We'll be using ultraviolet light to disinfect the waste water instead of chlorine or sulfur dioxide," Nelson said. "That will have a significant safety impact on the city because we will no longer have to bulk store these chemicals."
The $5.1-million contract calls for the upgrade to be completed within 18 months.