County officials are urging rural water district members to scrutinize the proposal being developed for a new water treatment plant.
By charging ahead with plans to build their own treatment plant, southern Douglas County water districts may forfeit a less expensive solution to the water meter shortage.
That's how Douglas County officials see the water districts' plan to find a site for the plant before Horizon 2020, the new countywide guide plan, is approved later this year.
However, Alan Soelter, the engineer designing the plant for Rural Water Districts 4 and 5, said he expects to have a site plan approved by the end of the year for a plant on the southeast side of Clinton Lake. The plant would be operational by 1999.
``Any waiting we do now is time we wait on the tail end of the project,'' Soelter said.
County commissioners said this week that they hoped the land-use guidelines set forth in Horizon 2020 would assuage Lawrence officials' concerns about rampant development outside the city limits where annexation is likely to occur.
Lawrence officials, who currently sell treatment services to the water districts, have said they won't lift restrictions on the number of meters the water districts may sell until they have assurances that new development will be planned and that its infrastructure will meet city standards.
As it is, RWDs 4 and 5 each may sell only eight new meters a year but each has 150 people on its waiting list.
County Commissioner Jim Chappell said he was dismayed that RWDs 4 and 5 wanted to proceed without making sure that a truce couldn't be struck with the city. Representatives of RWD 2, which faces the same meter shortage, have reopened talks with the city.
``I'm definitely glad that I live within the boundaries of water district 2, because they have reasonable, responsible leadership that is trying to make sure that the infrastructure they maintain is as free of debt as possible and that my water bill is as cheap as possible,'' Chappell said.
Chappell and County Administrator Craig Weinaug questioned whether residents of RWDs 4 and 5 had been given a realistic appraisal of the total costs of building and operating the 2-million-gallon-per-day plant.
In addition to capital improvement costs, Weinaug said the operating costs for a high-tech water treatment plant would be spread across a much smaller customer base than is served by the city of Lawrence.
``Conservatively, the result of building that water plant will be to double the water bills of the people in those districts, in my opinion,'' Weinaug told county commissioners Monday.
``I don't know what he's substantiating that with,'' Soelter said of Weinaug's comment.
``Rural Development, the former Farmers Home Administration, would not deem that to be a project that's feasible,'' he said.
The districts will rely on a low-interest federal loan to finance construction of the $5,038,000 plant.
Soelter said debt service and operating costs would increase the districts' wholesale cost of water from the $1.47 per thousand gallons they now pay the city to $2.83. However, Soelter said the increased cost probably would not result in a straight pass-through on water rates.
In addition to that option, the two districts also are considering raising the one-time price of a meter, now about $4,000. They also might set up a dual monthly minimum in order to let new customers bear a greater share of the cost. The base rate now accounts for $14 of the water bill in each district.
The districts could use a combination of those methods and each could decide to recoup its costs through different formulas.
Chappell and Weinaug also questioned Soelter's position as spokesman for the water districts and as a former participant in the districts' negotiations with the city.
``We need to keep in mind that Alan is in the business of selling people plans for a water plant,'' Chappell said. ``The whole time we were trying to make a deal a couple of years ago, Alan sat in the meetings and told the water districts why it was a bad idea.''
Soelter said he had not thwarted the city and county's efforts to reach an agreement.
``I am not at all opposed to working out a deal with the city of Lawrence,'' Soelter said.
He added, however, that the districts should bear in mind that even if the meter cap were lifted, the city would impose a volume limit on their water supply, which eventually could be outstripped by demand.
Even if a plant isn't built, the two districts will have to make some significant capital investments in their infrastructure to maintain and expand the system already in place.