Citing the importance of Devils Lake to the Lincoln City area, city councilors have decided to pursue the idea of a new tax to pay for the installation of sewers throughout the watershed.
At its Nov. 14 meeting, Lincoln City Council unanimously agreed to move forward with the idea of a tax in addition to the development of an inspection program for septic systems that are tributary to the lake.
Councilors agreed that the task of levying the tax should fall to the Devils Lake Water Improvement District (DLWID), which includes the entire city as well as the portions of the lake watershed beyond the city limits.
Mayor Dick Anderson said DLWID’s reach would allow the cost of sewering to be spread among all property owners who stand to benefit from a clean lake.
“We need to think of it as an asset to a much wider section of people that are concerned about the health of the lake,” he said, adding: “I would like to see the broader community share in the cost of moving forward.”
In order to levy the tax envisioned by the City, DLWID would have to ask voters to approve an issue of general obligation bonds, which would be backed by the value of the properties within the District.
Councilor Henry Quandt said he supports the idea of letting District voters decide whether to approve the investment.
City Manager David Hawker said the problem with asking voters to approve a tax is that the City does not know how much money it will take to get the job done.
“We don’t have a good cost estimate,” he said. “We have some city manager guesstimates, which aren’t sufficient.”
In a memo to Council, Hawker said a $15 million sewering program would require DLWID to levy a tax of 96 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value for properties within the watershed and half that for properties outside.
Developing a more accurate cost estimate would require several hundred thousand dollars-worth of engineering work, Hawker said – an expense for which the City has not budgeted.
Hawker said asking voters to approve a tax without a clear idea of what the resulting funds would buy would be a “hard sell.”
He said one way to fund a study would be to start charging a fee on properties within the watershed that receive city water and have a septic tank rather than a sewer connection.
Anderson said he did not like the idea of charging owners who installed their septic systems in accordance with the rules.
City Attorney Joan Kelsey said the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality might have grants available to fund the required study.
Anderson suggested the City could try to partner with other local agencies to boost its chances of receiving a grant.
If grants prove impossible, he said, Council could consider the septic system fee as a potential fallback option.
Council directed Hawker to ask DLWID to pursue a tax on the understanding that the City would endeavor to provide a firm cost estimate for the sewering project.
Seth Leanarts, DLWID project manager, told councilors the District supports the idea of sewering where feasible but asked that the Council also move forward on a program to inspect septic systems within the watershed.
County records show some 700 septic systems within the watershed, 231 of which are within the city limits.
Council directed staff to draft an ordinance requiring inspection of all properties within the watershed, but to word it in such a way as to allow Council to evaluate the results of the first inspections before deciding whether to extend program beyond its first year.
The inspections will target the systems the City has deemed most likely to be contributing to lake pollution based on their age, tank material, amount of water use and proximity to the water.
Hawker said the City could hope to have its first round of inspections in summer 2012, targeting 100 to 150 systems.
The ordinance would require that any failing system be forwarded to the County’s existing program for bringing septics into compliance.
For properties outside the city, an inspection would be a condition of continued water service. The enforcement mechanism for properties within the city has yet to be determined.
Council also directed staff to develop incentives to encourage sewering within the watershed, including allowing for a gradual payment of system development charges.
Under current regulations, property owners must hook up to a sewer within 120 days of it becoming available, a process that triggers a system development charge of $5,427 in addition to the cost of the connection.
Hawker said allowing property owners to pay that fee in installments or even defer it until the sale of the property might encourage more people to consider forming local improvement districts to pay for extending sewers into their neighborhoods.