It's an $88 million bet, and city leaders have to figure out when to place it. And here's the kicker: If they bet wrong, it will be the sewer bills of Lawrence residents that pay the price.
City commissioners said Wednesday that they are considering delaying - perhaps for a year to 18 months - the construction of a much talked about $88 million sewer plant for south of the Wakarusa River. Construction on the plant - slated to be the largest project ever undertaken by City Hall - was scheduled to be in full swing this year. But now, concerns over a slowdown in city population growth have commissioners thinking twice.
"We can't make a mistake on the planning of this project," City Commissioner Mike Amyx said. "We have to hit the bull's-eye on the timing of this."
If the project begins too soon, residents across the city likely would see sewer bills increase significantly - well above the 9 percent increases already projected. That's because the financial plans for the plant have assumed that the cost of the plant could be spread out over a population of 100,000 people. But now the city's growth rate has slowed to about 0.5 percent per year, according to the Census Bureau. At that rate, the city wouldn't reach 100,000 people until past 2020.
Mayor Sue Hack, though, said that doesn't mean the plant is going to be delayed for decades. Instead, she said the city is still expecting growth rates to return to their historical norms of about 2 percent per year.
Just not right away.
"I don't think there are any signals that in the immediate future - the next 18 to 36 months - that we're going to be back to that old growth rate of 2 percent or more," Hack said.
The plant, though, could take about three years to build, meaning that the most the city may feel comfortable delaying the project is 12 to 18 months, Hack said. If the city delays the project too long, the city could run out of sewer capacity and have to turn down development projects.
City Manager David Corliss said city staff would be sure to guard against that possibility. The city already has purchased the approximately 500 acres for the project - just south of where O'Connell Road dead ends at the Wakarusa River.
"We have a strong comfort level that we can proceed when the time is right," Corliss said. "We believe the plant is going to be built there. The question is when will it be built there. I'm still a strong believer in the long-term growth prospects of Lawrence."
Commissioners are expected to discuss a possible delay of the project at a meeting later this month, although a date hasn't been set yet, Corliss said. A delay is far from a done deal. Corliss said a major factor will be whether inflation in construction costs are expected to negate any financial benefits of delaying the project.
But commissioners said they also want staff members to take a hard look at the economy and ensure the city doesn't become overextended.
"In the past, Lawrence always has been a little bit of an oasis," Amyx said. "We've been able to withstand the slowdowns in the economy. But right now we need to understand that we're as impacted by this economy as anybody. We need to admit that our economy isn't much different than anybody else's right now."
If commissioners decide to delay the project, it's likely they will have to discuss future sewer rates. The city's plans call for sewer rates to increase by about 9 percent a year for the next several years to help pay for the plant. Amyx said that if the plant is delayed, or its size is reduced, sewer rates should be adjusted accordingly.