Monday, October 08, 2007

City Sewer Vs Septic Systems.

Over the next couple of weeks, will be posting articles from other areas of the country that might be applicable to the discussions currently going on in Milton, Georgia. does not endorse or debate any of the articles that will be posted. We do encourage open discussion among the citizens, however.

This one will make you angry...

by Jim vonMeier

I have received numerous calls and emails from people voicing their concerns about being forced to hookup to the city sewer. Although I support septic, when addressing a group I try to be fair and balanced pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of both treatment facilities and onsite systems and stayed away from the political side of the debate, primarily because I work with numerous government agencies and learning institutions.

However I can no longer remain quiet because I have seen too many abuses of the process that are going to affect all of us for years to come.

Over the last 20 years city and town leaders have approached their constituents telling them the damage from septic systems was ruining the environment and if they wanted to protect the habitat for future generations a sewage treatment facility would need to be built ASAP. What they neglected to tell people is why they had this sudden and urgent ecological concern…the city climbed into bed with private industry.

In many cases this critical mission was started when a developer came in with plans to build several high-rise condos, multimillion dollar homes and commercial properties. The big selling point [for the city] was how this project would bring in millions of dollars a year in property taxes. However the city realized a project of this magnitude would require a full scale sewage treatment facility. But at the same time they knew this would be a progressive move for their community so they struck a deal; they would build the treatment facility and the developer would go ahead with the project.

Now the engineering firms come in offering to design and build this project, and this is where things get really interesting. Building sewage treatment facilities and running the sewer mains is a multibillion dollar a year business…even a small project of less than 1,000 homes can easily exceed 10 million dollars. With contracts of this magnitude up for grabs, inappropriate business relationships and conflicts of interest are almost guaranteed.

I'll be very candid; I consider myself a fairly ethical person, but if someone was offering me scads of cash in little brown envelopes, free Bahamian cruises and dinners at the best restaurants in town I could be swayed to see the benefits to doing things their way (and overlook the negative points). “After all, we are trying to protect the environment, right?”
Now they need to get the project started and because most people are too busy earning a living and don't have the time to pay attention to things like this they receive little opposition. Besides, most feel their elected officials will be looking out for their best interests. And for those few that do try to fight it, they are discredited and labeled a wacko that doesn't care about the environment because who can argue against a modern treatment facility.

And to ensure as little resistance as possible the costs are buried in lingo that could confuse a CPA and under bidding is common (knowing full well once the roads are dug-up and the plant is half built the money will have to be raised to complete the project). Get ready for this:
The true costs of a treatment plant and infrastructure:

The cost of the land to build that plant on. This is not donated…someone owns it and they will usually get premium dollar for it. And if there happens to be a few homes in the way, no problem, the city can force the people out citing eminent domain.
The cost to build that plant…and the companies that do this don’t donate their time or materials either, they get paid in full.
The cost to dig-up the streets, lay the sewer mains, install pumping stations, and resurface those streets. Again paid in full.
The cost to hook-up to those sewer mains (this is the part most people believe to be their only expense).

And guess who pays for this…you do with your taxes and assessment fees. In most cases you will pay 30, 40, 50 even 60 thousand dollars just to get this deal done. And don't forget now you have that monthly sewer bill that will usually range $500 to $1,000 per year.
“But they said we would get grants to pay for it.”

Wrong. Grants only pay a small fraction of the costs. Something else no one will tell you; when you take grant money from the state or feds, they require you use designs, materials and companies only they approve and this can increase the costs more than if you didn't accept those grants. In other words, you would have been better off not taking that grant money. And by the way, where do you think grant money comes from. Your taxes. So even if grants paid for the whole project you (everyone) still had to pay for it.

But those financial damages are far from done. Since the city was nice enough to provide you with another public utility (considered a property improvement) your property taxes will automatically go up.

Hang on, it gets worse: You see now the developer came in and built those huge multimillion dollar structures which raised your property values, but guess what else it raised…your property taxes. Now they may be so high that some will be forced to move because they can no longer afford to pay the taxes on the property.

And here is a real irony for you; developers have overbuilt those high-buck condos and mansions…there aren't enough people to buy them and many of these developments are now sitting half empty. That means lives were disrupted for a failed project.
Back to eminent domain issues; now that they have a treatment facility the developer may decide that in a certain area commercial building will be better for the community, so they convince the city to force homeowners out so they can build office buildings (do a web search to see how many cases of eminent domain abuse are pending).

But here is the real insult; remember that environmental damage that needed to be addressed…it has gone up almost 600% in the last 10 years alone! You see those facilities don't do a very good job of treatment to start with (they reduce, not eliminate contaminates) and then you have frequent breakdowns allowing millions of gallons of raw sewage into our waterways. Even heavy rains can overload the system.

Are septic systems doing damage…yes, but not nearly what the pro-big pipe people claim (they exaggerate the figures to shock homeowners into agreeing they need a facility) and not for the "septic systems are inferior" reasons they give. They are doing damage because they were not properly designed in the first place.

Back in the old days very little thought was put into onsite systems…essentially people were just digging holes to dump their sewage into. In the last few decades onsite design and technology has evolved to the point where they will:

Produce zero pollution.
Last indefinitely if used/maintained properly (treatment plants only last 13 years on average).
Cost $5,000 to $15,000 per household (a fraction of a treatment facility).
Recharge the local water tables.

Treatment facilities can not match any of these points…but of course if people stick with their septic systems it would mean the developers would be forced to pay for their own sewage treatment methods (and the city wouldn't profit from it).

That doesn't mean all city leaders are on the take. There have been a few red-faced mayors, city planners and council members come forward claiming they were mislead by engineering firms citing flawed environmental studies and not disclosing the actual costs of the project (and not knowing onsite systems were a viable alternative). Although I sympathize, to me this is no excuse, not when you are pushing your community into a multimillion dollar commitment…you should do your homework.

If the city says they want to build a treatment facility you can fight it and winning is relatively easy. All you have to do is get the people that are on septic systems to have their systems upgraded to meet the codes that are on the books today…not 30 years ago.

If you do that, when the city comes around saying you need to build a sewage treatment facility to protect the environment you can say, "Thanks but no thanks. We already took steps to protect our environment and we are not going to pay millions of dollars for something that we no longer need...nor will we finance a public project for a private developer so they can build more high-rises and movie theaters."

The last time I checked we still lived in a democracy which means we have the right to voice our opinions and the ability to vote/control the choices our leaders make that will affect our [financial and environmental] future.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that post!

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it "Combover Boy" who said you just don't understand sewer.

Well, feel sure he is happy with the info given. Reckon O'Brien, Mohrig and Santi are also thrilled?

Anonymous said...

many of the home owners who are already paying high city tax in milton are having problems with septic fields that are inadequate and are failing......due to seepage fields being too short and poor soil percolation. Can't imagine that soil percolation changes that much in 5 years!
Now we have more homes $1M+ and a school in the area on the same type of soil.....whats going to happen to their systems in 5 years........
will future homeowners at $1M+ really want their septic fields filling up and having to spend $10-15k on replacing a field and landscaping? What happens when that field has saturated......and there is no further space to put in a new system? then there a 15year lifespan on habitability of homes in Milton ?