GREENVILLE — Now with all of the information and Baldwin Lake sewer agreements in hand, the city of Greenville has notified Eureka Township it would like to renegotiate the contract which governs the sewer system around the lake.
In 2012, City Manager George Bosanic filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking public records over an agreement between the city and the township relating to grinder pumps and a forced sewer main constructed near Baldwin Lake. The lake is partially in Eureka Township and partially in Greenville.
The reason for the request was to track down all agreements between the two municipalities relating to the sewer system to determine the best plan to repair and replace grinder pumps, several of which are likely approaching the end of their lifespan.
A year-long lawsuit over the FOIA request ensued, putting the issue at hand on the back burner. But with the lawsuit now settled, the city is reopening the pages of the 1986 agreement and finding what City Manager George Bosanic calls “fundamental flaws” in its wording.
Repairing grinder pumps on private property a concern
The Baldwin Lake sewer system, built in 1988, is operated by grinder pumps located at each house. Those pumps use pressure to help sewage flow around the lake and to the city’s main sewer system, which from there is gravity fed to the wastewater treatment plant.
As part of the original agreement, the entire system, including lines and grinder pumps on private property, are considered under the city’s jurisdiction. The contract gives the city the ability to operate and maintain the portion of the system in the township and up to this point the city has gone onto private property, both in the township and city, to make repairs.
The agreement, however, is between the city and the township, Bosanic said. There is no agreement between the city and residents that allow access to private property.
It has worked so far, Bosanic said, but after reviewing the agreements, he sees red flags in conducting repairs in that manner.
“There are liability issues for the city. There’s trespassing issues,” he said. “We have to have permission from property owners to maintain something that is theoretically ours.”
Instead, Bosanic said, there should have been easements for maintenance on private property.
But that isn’t the only issue Bosanic and city attorney’s found with the document.
“While it was well-intended, there are some fundamental flaws in it,” Bosanic said, including definitions of certain terms related to the system.
In addition to the agreement itself, Bosanic said there are other causes of concern for the city in the way the system is maintained and operated.
For the full 28-year life of the contract, city staff has been responsible for the operation and maintenance of the system, which is handled by the wastewater treatment plant employees. Repairs on the main portion of the system are well within the realm of the city staff’s capabilities, Bosanic said, but when it comes to the grinder pumps, which require electrical work as well as piping, it’s a different story.
“Minor repairs are something the wastewater plant can handle,” said Bosanic. “They are not plumbers or electricians and are making decisions to replace a pump or rebuild a pump.”
It is something, Bosanic said, they aren’t really qualified to do.
“It’s just really a myriad of whatever worked. We’ve just been really lucky,” he said.
Cost, lifespan of grinder pumps are a concern
The other issue, and biggest obstacle facing the system, is the inevitability that each of the more than 100 grinder pumps around the lake that haven’t been replaced or repaired already will go bad, and most likely sooner rather than later.
The estimated life span of the grinder pumps is 25 to 30 years. Those who still have grinder pumps installed when the system was built are around 26 years old.
With that many grinder pumps inching closer to failure, the city’s $50,000 operation and maintenance budget for the Baldwin Lake sewer system would barely put a dent in the approximately $3,000 per pump cost.
According to Bosanic, in order to build up a fund that would be able to fund full replacement of all the pumps, the current $15 per quarter fee on residents would have to increase drastically. The fund, which would be separate than the $50,000 operation and maintenance fund, would likely need to reach around $200,000. Bosanic said wastewater employees would also need to undergo electrical and plumbing training if the city were to remain the operators of the pumps themselves.
Another option, he said, is to redefine the system to transfer responsibility of the pumps and lines on private property to homeowners, leaving the bill for replacement and maintenance on the hands of homeowners.
However, if this was done, Bosanic said the city would likely distribute the $50,000 raised for operation and maintenance through resident fees back to the residents, based on the amount of work that has been done on their personal lines and pumps. The city would still operate and maintain the main line around the lake.
“That is an option, but I’m open to alternatives,” Bosanic said.
Residents of Baldwin Lake have expressed concern with that option; some saying they would prefer the system to remain the way it is, with the city taking responsibility for the entire system, including that on private property. At the same time, they are admitting something must be done as far as replacements go.
“We know we have a problem,” said Baldwin Lake Association member Bill Cook, who said he would rather bond the replacement project and let homeowners pay it back over time. Raising the fee rate is also an option he would consider, he said.
Cook said he does not want homeowners to be responsible for the pumps, which are underground on each parcel along the lake.
“We like the way it is,” said Cook, adding its worked for more than two decades. “It’s all taken care of. Residents can call when something goes wrong and the city handles it.”
Charlotte Lothian, another member of the association, agreed.
“I view this as a utility. I expect them as a service to repair their equipment on my property,” she said.
Whatever route is taken during the negotiations between the city and the township, all parties agree something must be done about replacement costs because the pumps will inevitability begin to fail, possibly on a large scale.
Eureka Township Supervisor Rodney Roy could not be reached for comment.