What’s Up in the Sewer System?

By Bob Hazard   |   September 26, 2019

The question before the Montecito Sanitary District (MSD) Board and its Montecito community of ratepayers is whether or not it is a good idea to spend nearly $6 million in ratepayer funds to build an office building for three employees and a receptionist. On the surface, spending $6 million on an office building for four people smells bad, even for a sewer district.

The controversy pits two newly elected MSD Board members (Dana Newquist and Woody Barrett) against the three appointed (never elected) Sanitary Board Members (Jeff Kern, Tom Kerns, and Tom Bollay) in the struggle to justify this unusual use of spending nearly $6 million out of MSD’s $7 million in reserve funds. The two candidates who waged a campaign and won the election last November promised voters that business-as-usual by rubber-stamp appointed insiders would no longer be normal operating procedure.

Public agencies, especially those with an endless history of “appointed” directors picked by the incumbents in consort with a strong professional manager, need to develop a greater obligation to transparency and “business in the sunshine.”

Cost of the New “Essential Services Building”

Immediately after the 2018 election in November, the two newly elected directors asked for cost estimates and justifications by the previously appointed Board for spending what has now escalated to roughly $6 million in ratepayer funds for an office building that was originally pegged at a price nearer to $3.5 million. For the last ten months, neither the GM, nor the Board majority of appointed members, has furnished the elected two Board members with either total projected costs, nor previous justification, nor present justifications for spending public funds.

Back on May 15, 2019, the MSD Board and management were again formally asked in writing under the Freedom of Information Act for an estimate of total costs for the so-called “Essential Services Building.” No costs and no justifications were provided. That request was never answered.

A second request for project cost and justifications was submitted on July 25, 2019. Again, the request was totally ignored. A third request for project cost and justifications was made at the August 29 MSD Board meeting. That too was shunted aside.

All five directors, appointed and elected, are keenly aware of their fiduciary responsibility to their ratepayers. How can any responsible director vote for a capital project without knowing the total cost of the project and its purpose? Where is the accountability?

What is the Justification?

Last year, the Board was told that the current Sanitary office building was mold-ridden, but that claim has yet to be proven. Now the rationale for the new office building has shifted to a need for showers after work for those working in the field. Since 1947, field personnel have showered at home after work. Do ratepayers really need to spend $6 million for showers?

The latest justification is a need for a training facility. Pipeline maintenance and treatment plant operators are mostly trained on-the-job, not in a classroom. Training is currently conducted in the present Board Room which is used infrequently by the Board. Why can’t that practice continue?

Lack of Transparency

It is not comforting that a search of the Montecito Sanitary District website for “Essential Services Building” brings up “No Results Found.” The appointed Board members’ response to that revelation after two years of deliberation over the project was “Gee, we need to fix that.”

Cost of Montecito Sewer Service

It is curious that the cost of sewer service in Montecito, paid bi-annually on the Montecito property tax assessment bill, is $1,480 for a single-family residence, which is twice the cost of sewer service in Carpinteria ($676) for a single-family residence; more than twice the cost in Santa Barbara for the same sewer service ($604); and almost three times the cost of sewer service in Goleta ($530). Why are Montecito’s rates higher?

MSD is a rather small operation. There are only 17 employees who are paid $2.7 million in salary and benefits. Eight maintenance workers monitor and repair the collection system of 61 miles of pipes and pumps throughout the Montecito community. These field workers with their own service trucks would not be headquartered in the new “Essential Services Building.” Another five employees run the treatment plant. Treatment plant operators do not need an office building.

That leaves three people and a receptionist to occupy the new “Essential Services Building.” They are Diane Gabriel, the GM; Carrie Poytress, Engineering Manager and Ms Gabriel’s backup; Toni McDonald, the District Administrator-Clerk of the Board; and her assistant, receptionist, Caroline Martin, who already share the current administrative office building.

The Sanitary site already contains an office building, a maintenance building, a testing laboratory, and of course a treatment plant. So far, the major justification seems to be, “We are collecting too much money, our revenues exceed our projections and we have excessive reserves, so let’s build a handsome new office building instead of refunding the money to our customers or considering an alternate use. 

Other Spending Options

According to the latest audited financial statement on its website, on an average day in 2017-18, MSD discharged nearly 616,000 gallons of treated wastewater into the ocean 1,500 feet off Butterfly Beach at the far end of Channel Drive to the consternation of environmentalists and beachgoers. That average daily flow of 616,000 gallons per day equates to 225,000,000 gallons per year, or 688 acre-feet of treated water each year wasted.

Environmentalists ask why not recycle as much as possible of that 688 AFY now being dumped into the ocean, into either potable and/or non-potable but safe irrigation water to give Montecito another new reliable source of local water. The potential exists to add nearly 20% of the 3,442 AFY sold to the Montecito community by the Montecito Water District (MWD) in 2018/19 as recycled wastewater.

Should that same $6 million be invested in upgrading Montecito’s wastewater treatment plant? Since 1961, the MSD treatment plant has treated its wastewater to a secondary treatment standard. Wastewater would have to be upgraded from its current outdated “secondary” treatment standard to at least a “tertiary” standard so that treated wastewater could be used for irrigation water for parks, schools, freeways, and other major landscaping users. A small test is being proposed for a joint project with the Montecito Water District to provide recycled water to the Santa Barbara Cemetery.

To allow injection into the groundwater basin and later retrieval, a higher treatment standard known as IPR (Indirect Potable Re-Use) would need to be developed. Advanced treatment plants in California are switching to an even higher standard of treatment known as DPR (Direct Potable Re-Use) where highly treated wastewater is treated to a level where it can be discharged directly into lakes and reservoirs, pending regulatory approvals.

Soon technology will allow super-treated wastewater to be mixed with desalinated water for direct potable re-use when California law catches up with the new technology. The City of Los Angeles has already announced that it will recycle all of its wastewater by 2035 to reduce its need for imported water by piping the treated water inland and injecting it into its underground aquifers for later retrieval as potable water. It is also diverting stormwater into its sewer system to increase the recapture of wastewater.

Expanding the Current Collection System

Large areas of Montecito such as Riven Rock and north of East Valley Road are still on septic systems awaiting sewer connection. Older and failing septic systems are a public health concern because they can release harmful bacteria and viruses into the Montecito groundwater system. Would providing sewer service to all of Montecito be a better investment than spending $6 million on an office building for three employees and a receptionist? In the 73 years since its creation in 1947 by a vote of the residents for the collection, treatment and disposal of Montecito wastewater, wouldn’t you think that by now, all of Montecito would have sewer service? Coast Village Road was lost to Montecito permanently when annexed to the City of Santa Barbara in the late 1950s when MSD declined to build a pipeline and waited until 1961 to finish the treatment plant that exists today. 

MSD serves 3,044 residential connections plus 38 commercial or institutional connections. According to its website, MSD owns approximately 61 miles of VCP gravity pipeline installed mostly between 1961 and 1969 of which 26 miles have been rehabilitated. It also owns 12 miles of PCP gravity pipeline, 2.2 miles of sewer force mains and 4 pump stations. These are the “essential services” of MSD, along with the treatment plant. Why not embrace full disclosure and have an informed community discussion about this major expenditure of ratepayer money?

As elected director Dana Newquist notes, “Unfortunately in local district agencies with five Board members, all you need to know is how to count to three.” Dana may be correct, but if counting to three is all it takes, maybe we need some new math. Or here’s a novel idea: a public vote as to how to spend that money.

 

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