Whether Lockwood’s Water and Sewer District will build a sewage system to serve 952 residential properties will soon be decided by voters.
On Friday, 1,475 ballots will be mailed to property owners and to registered voters within the district’s Phase 2 area. Electors have until the Nov. 5 general election to vote whether to approve issuing $9.22 million in bonds to help pay for the $12.6 million project.
The project is part of a 17-year effort by the district to upgrade service to the unincorporated but fast-growing community of about 9,000 residents who rely largely on septic systems. If approved, construction would begin next year.
Sewer service is a priority, the district board said, because of failing drain fields and nitrate contamination in the groundwater.
The district has put together a funding package that includes $3.38 million, or 27 percent of the project, in federal, state and local grants; low interest on $9.22 million in loans; and favorable construction costs. Included in the grants is a $480,000 contribution from Yellowstone County for road resurfacing. The county’s contribution came after the deadline for preparing the ballot, which uses a bond figure of $9.7 million.
“A lot of people are working together to get service to the community,” said Woody Woods, the district’s general manager. “Now it’s up to the voters. The district is just saying, ‘Please vote,’” he said.
The cost to property owners will vary depending on the value of their property.
The district estimates the bond assessments will be $274 a year for a mobile home with a market value of $28,500; $598 a year for a home valued at $100,000; and $948 a year for a home valued at $250,000. The ballot says the bonds will be payable for up to 40 years, but the district plans to pay them off in 30 years. The estimated costs are based on a 30-year payoff.
In addition to the assessment, property owners will pay fees and charges when they hook up. Those fees will include an $800 one-time system development fee; a $60 one-time fee for a sewer system permit fee; $1,200 to $2,000 estimated costs for home service connection and septic tank abandonment; and a monthly sewer user charge of about $50.
Woods acknowledged that property taxes will increase, but said the risk of waiting probably means a more expensive project later.
Lockwood has been experiencing septic tank and drain field failures with contamination reaching the groundwater supply and eventually the Yellowstone River, he said.
“Do you really want to continue to add more to it? It would be nice to leave the environment in better shape than when we found it,” Woods said.
Not everyone thinks the project is needed.
James and Mana Seward, of 18 Meier Lane, believe the project is too expensive for the community. The retired couple, who are artists, have mailed their own yellow postcards to electors under the name “Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility” because they don’t think people are informed about the project.
The postcard says annual property taxes will increase at least 30 percent for the next 30 years, plus the hook-up and monthly fees. The mailing urges people to vote no if they think the sewer project is too expensive.
“People need to be incredibly aware of what this is going to cost them and to make decisions very carefully,” said Mana Seward.
“They’re threatening everybody in the community — you will have sewer or else,” said James Seward.
Mana Seward said four earlier sewer proposals were voted down and that the approval margin should be a supermajority, which was a requirement in those elections before the Legislature changed it to a simple majority.
The Sewards, who have opposed previous sewer projects, live on a one-acre lot and have two septic tank systems serving two residences. Neither has had a problem.
People should be responsible for fixing their own systems, Mana Seward said.
Debbie Dorsey, of 26 Rock Hill Drive, said she is undecided but is leaning against the project. A 30-year resident of Lockwood, Dorsey said she is concerned about the expense as she nears retirement. She has not had problems with her septic system, she said.
Bob Riehl, of 126 Rolling Meadow Drive, said he “could survive either way” but plans to hook up to sewer service. “I would hook up immediately because I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
“I believe we need to be looking at long-term solutions that are sustainable and not short-term fixes,” said Riehl, who volunteers as treasurer on Lockwood’s Steering Committee.
Riehl has had problems with his septic system but was able to resolve them because he has a half-acre lot. He added onto his drain field to make it more efficient.
But, he said, many lots are not big enough to redo a drain field.
A sewer system will bring construction disruption and added costs, Riehl said. He estimates the system will cost him about $100 more a month.
“Nothing’s cheap. When it’s done it will be a good thing for the people that follow us,” he said.
Lockwood has a long history of trying to provide sewer service to the community.
The district began as the Lockwood Water Users Association in 1955, with citizens forming the organization to drill wells for a central water system. The community grew and the association eventually built a water treatment plant in 1987 and switched to treating river water as its source of supply.
In 2001, the association became the Lockwood Water and Sewer District. Unlike an association, a district is eligible for grants and can issue bonds to help provide services, Woods said.
The district’s first three attempts at bond elections for sewer service were unsuccessful, Woods said, because they did not to win a supermajority, or 60 percent, of the vote even though a majority of voters approved the projects.
The first sewer election in 2001 received support from 51 percent of voters. The second election in 2003 received support from 54 percent of voters, while a third election later in 2003 got support from 59 percent of voters.
A fourth election in 2004 failed with 55 percent of voters opposed.
All four of those elections were voted by the entire district, Woods said.
The 2008 Legislature then changed the margin for approval for such measures to a simple majority.
The district succeeded in 2008 with a $21 million, Phase 1 central sewer project to hook up about 400 mostly commercial properties and some residences along Old Hardin Road, the North Frontage Road and near the Johnson Lane interchange. The bond election passed with 61 percent approval — a supermajority — of voters only in the Phase 1 area.
Phase 1 is nearly complete, with 413 homes and businesses connected. The district sends the sewage to the city of Billings for treatment at the city’s plant.
The district moved forward with Phase 2 after a mail survey last year indicated that 65 percent of respondents were interested in residential sewer service.
If voters reject the Phase 2 project, the district will lose the grants and any future project will be more expensive, Woods said. Residents also would have to deal with their own system failures, he added.
If state regulators determine that system failures are causing a community health hazard, the state could direct the community to resolve it, Woods said. That’s what happened when Lockwood’s water wells became contaminated, forcing the switch to treating river water, he said.
If Phase 2 is approved, residents would not have to hook up but would still have to pay the bond assessment, Woods said.
But if a drainfield fails and the property is within 500 feet of public sewer, the county health department will not issue a permit for drainfield or septic system repairs or replacement.
Woods also dispelled some misinformation about the project. The district’s water fees are not being used to pay for the sewer project and are separate charges, he said.
The district increased the monthly base water rate in 2011 from $7.50 to $15 after 23 years without an increase, Woods said.
The user rate of $3.70 per 1,000 gallons has remained unchanged since 1988, he said.
If the sewer project moves forward, the district will take advantage of the torn-up roads to replace 10,000 linear feet of older water mains in certain areas using capital improvement water funding, Woods said.