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Council set to raise water rates as planned

While it might seem that Farmington has always had an exceptionally clean municipal water system void of excessive chlorination or contaminants, the federal government says it’s dirty to the tune of millions of dollars to be charged to the users.

Lowered mandatory maximum standards ordered by the EPA has meant the city is required to install costly radionuclide contamination filters by the end of 2011 to rid the groundwater of a process which has been occurring in drinking water here since seemingly the beginning of time. The bedrock contains naturally-occuring minuscule radioactive particles which pass along trace amounts of contamination into water as it passes through the rock either by way of natural cracks or fissures or drilled wells.

The EPA says the water must be filtered of radionuclide contamination despite the fact that there is no evidence showing increased illness or disease caused by drinking the local water. Still, the federal agency has imposed mandatory treatment or high fines if the treatment is not put in place. The most cost-effective treatment is costing the city millions of dollars.

With that scenario, the city has been forced to install a filtration system. A contract was recently signed with a company based in Chicago, Ill., to provide filters for about a dozen well sites in the community. EPA standards require the water be treated at the source where it leaves the ground, meaning the city must buy treatment plants for each well in the city-wide network of wells and towers.

In addition to the roughly $6 million cost of the filters, the ongoing annual cost to maintain the system will be about $600,000. Water rates in the community have been held relatively low historically, and remain so compared to comparable communities. The problem is there’s not enough revenue from the water rates, or other sources, to pay for the purchase of the radionuclide filters and annual maintenance.

So about a year ago the city council made the decision to raise water rates to cover the cost of filtration treatment mandated by the EPA. At that time it was decided to increase the rates in stages to not make such a large cost burden on users all at once. At that time a water rate increase was passed by the council raising rates uniformly by 50 percent. Users were warned that another similar increase would be coming in the months to follow.

That time has apparently arrived. Monday night a bill was introduced to raise current water rates by 50 percent. The bill was discussed and introduced, but will not be voted on until at least the April 14 council work session.

City Administrator Greg Beavers provided a detailed outline of how the rates will be structured. Simply stated, though, the proposed increase is essentially an “across the board” increase. Dedicated portions of the increased rate will go to pay off the millions of dollars of radionuclide treatment equipment being installed. A smaller portion will go to pay the estimated $600,000 annual maintenance bill to keep the radionuclide filtration systems up and running.

Additionally, council members heard a first reading of a proposed bill which would raise sewer rates by six percent in October. Like the water rate increase ordinance, the sewer rate increase will go to pay for mandatory treatment practices imposed by the federal EPA.

Council members were asked to approve a cost increase for work to install an additional treatment step in a city sewer plant. Rising cost of steel has driven up the over all cost of the project from earlier estimates, resulting in the request for additional funding to move forward with the project.

As an added but unrelated concern, Beavers said during the meeting that a mandate had been received requiring the city to lesson the contaminants coming from a lagoon at the west wastewater treatment plant. Meeting the new requirements would be a very costly effort. The administrator said he was looking into the possibility of simply eliminating the use of the lagoon. A recent rebuild of the west treatment plant could likely allow the plant to now handle all sewer flow even during peak times — instances when the lagoon was used to hold excessive flow until the plant to could treat the waste.

He promised to report back to the council on the likelihood of closing the lagoon in coming weeks.

The council should take up both the water rate and sewer rate increases at the April 14 work session.

In keeping with Public Works, the administrator said he is doing phone interviews with 12 candidates for the position of Public Works Director. The candidates range over a geographical area from right in the community to as far away as the state of Oregon. The city needs to hire a public works director to replace Alan Welshon, who died on the job while preparing for a major snow and ice storm several months ago.

It was also reported that work is progressing on a recently-purchased factory building which will be used to house some city services. The building sits along State Route 32 just east of the 32 and Route OO intersection. It was used as a box factory prior to being sold to the city last year.

Monday night’s council meeting began with a proclamation denoting the 160th anniversary of the Farmington Masonic Lodge. Formed on May 10, 1851, the lodge began meeting in the community and eventually settled at a location where it has met routinely now for 100 years. A few years ago the lodge was renamed the Eugene M. Cole Masonic Lodge in honor of long-time current member “Gene” Cole. Several representatives of the lodge were on hand to receive the proclamation from Mayor Stuart “Mit” Landrum.

Council members also held a public hearing and first reading of an ordinance which would allow churches, schools, civic groups and fraternal organizations to place “signs and sign structures for the purpose of providing directions” on “property other than the lot of record.” The change in city law would allow those groups to install a sign denoting directions along main thoroughfares on property not belonging to the group or organization. However, the owner of the property where the sign would be located would have to give written approval to the city for the sign to be placed on the property.

The bill will be discussed and read a second time before being taken up for a vote in coming weeks.

The council will meet next on April 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the basement of Long Memorial Hall.

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