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Lockwood sewer system plan dusted off for reconsideration
LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff Construction continues on a Holiday Inn Express at the Lockwood Johnson Lane interchange. The motel is building its own sewage disposal system but is ready to hook up to central sewer when it becomes available.

When Lockwood residents began a community planning effort a couple of months ago, it didn't take long for folks to realize that a central sewer system is key to the community's future.

"That's one of the big things I got out of the meetings," said Carl Peters, president of the Lockwood Water and Sewer District board of directors. "It was pretty clear that the sewer project is the top priority for the community."

People attending the Lockwood meetings in recent months said they want to attract new businesses and services that aren't available in the unincorporated community of 8,000 just east of Billings.

"But as one person said at the last meeting, we're not going to get any of that without a sewer," Peters said.

That's why Peters and other directors of the water and sewer district are working to place a $29 million sewer bond election back before voters on the Nov. 5 ballot.

In a special bond election held last June, Lockwood voters narrowly approved the sewer proposal by a margin of 51 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed. But the margin of approval fell short of the 60 percent super majority required by law.

Under the proposal, a series of sewer mains would be extended throughout the community. Sewage would be pumped under the bed of the Yellowstone River to be treated at the Billings sewage treatment plant.

Despite the unsuccessful campaign, the water and sewer board has been busy working to put the project back before the voters. Peters said the board plans a series of meetings with Lockwood residents to answer questions and address concerns about the project.

Morrison Maierle, the board's consulting engineering firm, has been investigating the possibility of reducing the size of the project so that it would serve only those residents and businesses served by the Lockwood water district. The board is also studying whether building the project in phases would save money, he said.

Stuart Deans, a member of the water and sewer district's board, said Billings Heights has prospered in part because of the availability of sewer service.

"We are aware of what happened in the Heights before they had sewer service, with live sewage going into the river" from overloaded septic systems, Deans said. It's important for Lockwood residents to take action now, he said.

New commercial developments that have sprung up in the Heights probably never would have occurred without central sewer service, Deans said.

Lockwood residents and businesses must rely on septic systems for sewage disposal. But septic systems can become unreliable and are expensive to replace over time.

"Some people are concerned about the health aspects of septic systems, and we want to provide a viable business community that can support motels and restaurants," Deans said.

Some commercial businesses have chosen to locate in Lockwood despite the absence of a central sewer system. A new Holiday Express motel under construction near the Johnson Lane Interchange has its own sewage disposal system.

"But we have made plans to hook up to a sewer system if it becomes available," said Mike Goeman, regional manager of Budget Motel Management, of South Dakota. "We're in favor of the project."

The Lockwood Water and Sewer District has acquired more than $7 million in state and federal grants for the proposed sewer system. Rick Russell, manager of the district, said some people have asked the board to look for more government grants to reduce the costs to local taxpayers.

But government agencies that provide the grants are reluctant to provide more money unless local taxpayers make a financial commitment to the project, Russell said.

Meanwhile, some legal problems must be cleared up before the sewer project goes back on the ballot. Yellowstone County officials have asked for an attorney general's opinion to help clarify what kinds of property can be assessed for the sewer project, which would be financed by issuing a general obligation bond.

In a letter to Attorney General Mike McGrath, Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos wants to know whether state law allows a sewer district to assess personal property in addition to real property.

The Montana Department of Revenue has concluded that only real property can be assessed, and that could affect the final cost for people served by the project, Paxinos wrote.

Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at thoward@billingsgazette.com

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