By John Schaffner

The DeKalb County Commission has approved a $1.35 billion, five-year water and sewer systems capital improvement program financed through an 11 percent increase each year in water/sewer rates for 2012-2014.

The commissioners approved the program and rate increase Dec. 14, one day after officials  announced the county had reached a proposed consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department and federal and state environmental agencies for major sewer improvements. The work will attempt to eliminate future unauthorized overflows of untreated sewage.

Ted Rhinehart, the county’s deputy chief operating officer for infrastructure, told commissioners, “We have been pro-active in getting the capital improvements program in place,” anticipating improvements that needed to be made to the system “so that we can eliminate future spills.”

County Commissioner Lee May, who chairs the Public Works/Economic Development/Planning Committee (PEP) which has been reviewing the county’s capital improvement program for the past nine months, introduced the two substitute actions.

May said the proposal originally presented last March by DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis called for spending $1.9 billion on 83 projects. It required a 13 percent annual water/sewer rate increase for years 2012-2014.

‘We took a lot of time going through the program project by project,” May said during the commission’s deliberation. He said his committee, which included commissioners Jeff Rader and Kathie Gannon, worked hard to “balance the public health of our citizens and the pocketbooks of our citizens.”

May said the need for sewer system improvements hit home for him the evening the consent decree was announced, which was the day before the commission vote. He said he arrived home to find a sewer backup from the first-floor toilet in his house. It left an inch of water on his first floor, he said.

“It shows a real need in our system,” May told the other commissioners and public attending the meeting. “My backyard right now is full of sewage.”

He said there are things that the county now must do, under terms of the court order. “What was federally mandated is in the program,” he said.

Along with major improvements to the sewer system, DeKalb also will pay a civil penalty of $453,000, which will be split between agencies in the federal and state governments. DeKalb has estimated that the injunctive relief and other related improvements may cost approximately $700 million.

As part of the settlement, DeKalb has agreed to conduct a stream cleanup project at an estimated cost of $600,000.  The cleanup will focus on removal of trash and debris from segments of the South River, the south fork of Peachtree Creek and Snapfinger Creek.

Ellis has said that a “silver lining” of the proposed improvement program and rate increase will be the creation of hundreds of jobs to design and build the water and sewer improvements. He told commissioners that the county is working on a program to ensure that DeKalb citizens will get those jobs.

The proposed consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.

Rhinehart was asked why the vote on the program and rate increases shouldn’t wait until after those comments are received. “The public comment period will not result in price going down,” Rhinehart responded. “The cost will only go up, not down.”

To pay for the $1.35 billion program, the county would borrow $1.2 billion by selling bonds and paying them back over 30 years. The remaining $200 million would be pay-as-you-go. Interest rates on the bonds are expected to be 3 percent, Rhinehart said.

The $1.35 billion project list approved is smaller than originally proposed because commissioners had already scrapped about $600 million in planned improvements—primarily some work at the Polebridge Wastewater Treatment Plant and a tunnel project in southeast DeKalb to tie together the Polebridge and Snapfinger plants. .

Of the remaining proposed projects, the most expensive items are: $378 million for upgrades at the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant; $65 million at the Polebridge Wastewater Treatment plant; $38 million improvements to the Scott Candler Water Treatment Plant; $179 million in water distribution system improvements; $600 million in wastewater collection system improvements; $82 million for water reuse and return of treated wastewater to the Chattahoochee River; $36 million for purchase of vehicles and equipment needed for wastewater collection system cleaning and maintenance.

At a meeting in Dunwoody on Dec. 7, Rhinehart told homeowners that the Snapfinger wastewater center was built to last 50 years and it has been in use for 47 years.

“Much of the list is critical for safety purposes,” Rhinehart said. “If we don’t at least get started on this program, we are on borrowed time.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.