Austin City Council may vote on Lansing sewer project soon

Published 7:07 am Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In one week, Austin’s City Council will be faced with a tough decision — go forward with the controversial Lansing-area sewer project, or drop the project and risk allowing local pollution of the Cedar River to continue.

On Tuesday, July 6, council will be voting on whether to assess 209 residential units roughly $16,000 each, which would make up all of the $3.26 million project. With approval, shovels could be in the ground by the end of July. Without approval, sewage will continue to discharge into the Cedar River — which has been deemed as one of the five most-polluted rivers in the country — until another solution is found.

Keeping the project on hold has been a number of complaints filed with the city. To date, residents representing 61 residential units have submitted complaints, and more could come in up until Tuesday evening’s hearing.

The complaints present a tricky situation for the city — beyond angering the complainants if it goes ahead with the project, the city could also face lawsuits in district court from these citizens. At worst, the city estimated, this would mean up to $200,000 in legal fees and up to $900,000 of project costs that could be deemed as unfairly assessed by a judge — costs that would then come back to the city.

These complaints have come from all across the Lansing area. Among other concerns, citizens have said they simply can’t afford a $16,000 bill, while others have said they do in fact have compliant septic systems and paying for a sewer would be unfair. Others still have complained about having their properties divided into multiple residential units, which raised their overall assessments.

Councilman Brian McAlister said he empathizes with people concerned about paying $32,000 or more in assessment costs. But the councilman said he also understands the importance of getting the pollution problem under control.

“There doesn’t seem to be a clean solution here,” he said.

That was the general sentiment of council on Tuesday. While assessing big costs on so many citizens is a hard thing to do, council members said they know something needs to be done.

And if they don’t do it, someone will have to — the state’s pollution control agency has already threatened at least four area residents with $500 monthly fines starting in January if the situation isn’t rectified. Potentially, the county could step in and try to go forward with a similar type of sewer project — and assessment — if the city drops out.

In any case, there will be costs to a solution.

“(Residents) are going to spend this money no matter what,” councilman Jeff Austin said.

City engineer Jon Erichson said he believes the city’s current project estimate, at roughly $3.26 million, is likely as low as it’ll ever be because construction costs are currently down. He also said the city’s proposal is less than one submitted several years ago by Lansing Township — a big reason why the township petitioned to be annexed by the city.

Councilman John Martin agreed that the city’s current proposal seems to be the most cost-conscious.

“I think this is the best financial option available to property owners,” he said.

Still, if the assessment values are approved, there will almost certainly be a handful of legal challenges. While the project would be able to proceed at the same time, there would be a possibility that some of the assessed costs get over-turned in court.

Mayor Tom Stiehm, who has supported the project, said he thinks council should be willing to take that risk.

“We’re not here to do what’s easy,” the mayor said. “We’re here to do what’s best. And I think (this project) is best.”