Sewers for Schoolcraft, a Weighty Issue

schoolcraft sewers
Alan Smaka, Wightman & Associates, presents sewer connection options in Schoolcraft.

By Sue Moore

Are sanitary sewers in the near future for Schoolcraft residents?

The idea was tested by the Schoolcraft Village Council at its January meeting with a presentation by Alan Smaka, of Wightman & Associates, Inc., a Benton Harbor engineering firm with offices in Portage and Allegan.

“We are not here to sell a sewer system to the citizens of Schoolcraft,” Keith Gunnett, president of the village, told the audience. “The village put out the question in a survey conducted in 2014 in which the results indicated that 60 percent were interested in the possibility. We didn’t pay Wightman but we want the public to be informed and see what they thought about the proposal.”

Smaka’s firm has been studying the potential for construction of sewers in the south Kalamazoo County area under an agreement with the South County Sewer & Water Authority (SCSWA), with the potential of receiving the contract to be the project engineer, if the entities in the proposal agree to move ahead.

He said that keen interest has been shown by residents of Barton Lake in Schoolcraft Township, as well as initial interest developing in the Sugarloaf Lake area. But there is still a long way to go before any construction could take place. He explained that the way they have engineered the sewer would be different from what was proposed to Schoolcraft some years ago, when it was designed to run through Portage to discharge into the Kalamazoo City’s waste water treatment plant.

Wightman engineers analyzed the cost, either high or low, depending upon how many entities would want to be included. If the Villages of Vicksburg and Schoolcraft, the U.S. 131 corridor businesses, and the area lakes participated, the costs could be substantially lower. If only a few took part, that would likely increase the costs beyond a reasonable threshold, but it could be cost effective if even half of the jurisdictions committed, he explained.

sewerpresentationSanitary sewers help protect the public’s health and safety, Smaka said. He added that Schoolcraft is blessed because it doesn’t have high water tables which cause problems for septic tank owners, and it does have good enough soils for septic tank effluent to pass through more easily before apparent failures are noticed (most people deem backups as the failure mode of a septic system). Nevertheless, the 10-25 percent of phosphates and 90 percent of nitrates that get into the groundwater can cause a host of problems for residents in densely populated areas where effluent overlap increases pollutant concentrations and potentially affects connected ground and surface water resources.

Smaka had a range of cost estimates for individual home owners which included a monthly charge of $30-45, a benefit fee (hookup) between $8,500 to $10,500, and a parcel fee of $1,000 for a vacant piece of land. These charges assumed no new customers added after installation and no grant money obtained for the sewer project. Both have potential to reduce the proposed costs if actually realized.

Financing options include municipal bonds at 5 to 6 percent interest, or a USDA loan grant for 40 years at 3-3.5 percent interest as the most viable means of building the sewer. Either would allow the home owner to pay up front or on an installment plan. No township or village funds will be used from the general fund for sewer construction since the project will be set up to recoup all capital and operation/maintenance costs through assessment districts and user rates affecting only those stakeholders within the proposed sewer service districts.

There is a political price to pay according to Ted LuPina, who was in the audience. He cited a recall of Porter Township trustees who voted for a sewer to encompass six lakes in Porter Township, Cass County. “I thought we put this to bed ten years ago. I don’t need it or want it,” he said. Smaka countered by saying that most residents in Porter Township are now very happy with their sewer. He also mentioned that many projects proceed very smoothly from a political standpoint and are largely dependent upon the engagement method used by local municipal leaders.

The Schoolcraft Village Council is inviting the public to comment at its Monday, March 2 regular meeting, according to Gunnett.

Schoolcraft can opt in or out Smaka explained. “The village will stay unchanged if it doesn’t do this project. One of the biggest areas I see there being a need for the project for the Village of Schoolcraft is in regard to economic development. If it doesn’t want a sewer system, the Village can choose to stay the way it is, but likely at the cost of economic development/sustainability and the ability to alter its current configuration (i.e., requiring larger lot sizes throughout to accommodate individualized on-site septic systems),” Smaka concluded. “The Village needs to evaluate their long-term goals as a community and weigh the impact a wastewater system (or lack thereof) will have in achieving those goals”.

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