Out of My Mind, March 15, 2012

No easy fix for Eastlake sewer financing

The county commissioners are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issue of paying back the state Public Works Trust Fund for the Eastlake Sewer Project. The county went into the project with good intentions – promoting development on the east side of Osoyoos Lake and the tax revenue it brings, while not adding to potential pollution problems in the lake.
When they took the low interest PTWF loan pay back was based on a much greater build-out with connection fees covering the cost of payments. For the Oroville area it was a boom time with developments making it look like there would be no problem meeting the loan’s obligations. New construction in the Oroville area was so high that it surpassed the Methow for the first time in a long time. The boom times went away just as they did for the nation and the county was left with payments that relying on new connection fees alone could not cover. Talk turned to forming a special assessment area. That’s when many people like Eastside residents Earl Bjorkman and Spencer Higby really took notice and they organized a well-attended community meeting to talk about how such an assessment could affect those who owned property near the sewer line.
Bjorkman continues to follow the issue closely and sends us updates. After talking with him recently it looks like he may be resigned to being included in a special assessment area. However recent talks about how large the area could be has him concerned about the fairness of including lots that are not near the sewer line – lots that would not benefit from the line unless it was greatly expanded – something that obviously won’t be done anytime soon. In one plan, according to Bjorkman, the assessment area would include lots as far away as the railroad bridge near the sawmill – no where near the sewer line.
Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston asked the county commissioners at their Feb. 13 meeting for direction – not for a decision on imposing a special assessment area, but whether the commissioners want him to move forward in order to frame the decision. At that meeting Bjorkman asked if consideration is being made to all sides of Eastlake Road. He also questioned whether lots near the new sewer line, but recently annexed into the City of Oroville could be assessed. Commissioner Andy Lampe asked if this might cause people to annex into the city and Huston said he didn’t know at this time. Another question that needs to be asked is whether people who have already connected and paid their fees would still have to pay the assessment when it was implied at the time their obligation was fulfilled.
The county commissioners need to find the answers to these questions before they make a final decision. Such an assessment should not be placed on those who could not directly benefit from it, because the property is not within a reasonable distance from the main sewer line. If they could not reasonably connect to it, they shouldn’t be expected to pay for it, not unless everyone in the unincorporated parts of the county were expected to do so too. There’s no easy fix, but the bill for the sewer project remains. Let’s hope the commissioners can come up with an equitable way to solve this issue.