OROVILLE – Concerned they’ll be taxed for a sewer line they say they don’t benefit from, several Eastlake area residents gathered to take precautions against inclusion in a possible Special Assessment Area.
Okanogan County constructed the Eastside Sewer Project five years ago using a state Public Works Trust Fund Loan of over $5 million. The sewer project serves residents and developments in the eastlake area north of the Cherry Street Bridge both inside and outside the Oroville City Limits (since annexation of parts of the project area). Payment of the loan was set up to come from connections to the sewer line, however, the connection rate has not been great enough to serve the payments on the loan and the Okanogan County Planner recently discussed the possibility of a special assessment area being formed that would tax people living within the project area.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we do have some questions,” said Eastlake area resident Spence Higby, who with fellow area resident Earl Bjorkman organized the special public meeting at the Oroville Senior Center last Friday evening.
Higby and Bjorkman said they were unaware of the potential for a special assessment zone until reading about it in a recent issue of the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune. Perry Huston, Okanogan County Planner, made mention of the special assessment zone as one way the county could service the debt while attending an Oroville City Council meeting.
“Earl and I are not against water and sewer development… water and sewer are essential most of the time. We look at it as users pay for the benefit like riding a ferry or paying a toll on a bridge. We have no difficulty with that… what got Earl and I here tonight is this is not ‘user pay,’ we are not connected and we receive no benefit,” Higby, a former Okanogan County Commissioner said.
He went on to explain that Okanogan County had taken the $7 million loan for the project and the City of Oroville had borrowed from the PWTF money to upgrade the its sewer facilities. He also explained that city was responsible for paying back back their portion of the loan.
Chris Branch, Director of Oroville’s Department of Community Development clarified that the city made the improvements in order to be able to handle the additional flow of wastewater coming from the project.
The men said that it was their understanding that if the proposed assessment area is approved by the county commissioners, those that were already connected would not have to pay the assessment — having already paid connection fees.
Higby described this as a sweetheart deal, especially for Veranda Beach Resort, but he did not blame the resort for the county’s problems. He said that it was shortsighted planning on the commissioners’ part.
“We can argue about where the sewer line went and who benefits,” said Higby.
Bjorkman added, “The hook up fees are not happening at a high enough level. The commissioners are looking at several options and have assured us they have not made a decision about how to pay yet.”
Higby continued, “Some of you have city water, some have sewer. You chose to do so, I have no problem with that. They’re talking about doing so without a vote according to an official with the PWTF contacted by Sen. Morton.”
Bjorkman said he started researching the issue after reading the Gazette-Tribune story. After looking through past commissioners’ meetings minutes he said he found a plan to put more than $2 per $1000 of assessment on a special assessment area of 2000 acres had already been discussed. Bjorkman was asked when such an assessment would begin and if a vote was required. He responded that apparently a vote of those living in whatever area was designated for the special assessment was not required.
A copy of the April 18, 2011 minutes of the Okanogan County Commissioners was passed out. In a highlighted area it reads, “If we roll they Public Works Fund into the ULID for the entire area it does not have to be voted upon.”
“We don’t know when the assessment could take place, it could be as soon as this Valentine’s Day or as late as 2017. Look here it says it would go for 20 years to 2037,” said Bjorkman, pointing to some information that he had posted on the wall.
The tow men asked those in the crowd to join with them in signing a petition to the commissioners.
“The petition is simple and plain, it asks them to not act on any proposals that affect our lives without inviting us to the discussion,” Higby said.
Higby said that legal action was the last thing he wanted, but if it came to a point where he was assessed without receiving the benefit of the new sewer line he would donate the first hundred dollars towards a legal fund.