Residents Ask Hard Questions on Proposed Sewer Project

sewer hearing 1
Front row, from left: Todd Carlin, Russell Barnes, John Stodola, Wes Schmitt, Mae Pfost. Back row, from left: Lucas Pols, Vern Johnson, Michael Rochholz, Sy Spears, Alan Smaka, Kathy Mastenbrook, Keith Gunnett, Susan Hendriksma, Kirk Bergland. Photo by Travis Smola.

By Travis Smola

Schoolcraft residents finally got their opportunity to ask public officials and consultants about the proposed sewer system.

Members of the Schoolcraft Village Council, the Planning Commission, the Kalamazoo County Health Department and consultants from Wightman and Associates were on hand to answer questions.

If the applause which followed a comment is an indication of community sentiment, many would like to vote on the issue.

Village Council President Keith Gunnett, opening the meeting, acknowledged that the sewer project is controversial and that gathering public input is important. “The Village Council really wants to hear your questions, comments and ideas so we can better understand the direction we should take for the future of the village.”

He opened the meeting by asking the officials and consultants to answer questions citizens had written on cards at a previous meeting on the issue in June. Some addressed issues such as possible locations of a lagoon/treatment plant, the costs of filling in old septic tanks and how the costs and assessment for each property would be determined.

The meeting became more heated when Gunnett opened it up for questions and comments from the audience.

One of the first: Why didn’t the project happen 30 years earlier?

“This is a project that has a lot to do with the sustainability of the village,” village council member John Stodola replied. “We’ve lost some businesses and we’ve lost some opportunities. There’s an effect on home values both ways. We’re trying to make a very informed decision based on all the studies and the folks you see here. Why now? Because it’s our turn to think about it.”

One of the primary concerns of the audience was the estimated cost of the project to citizens. Max Hutchinson told the group he just moved to the village a month ago and is concerned the costs could cause foreclosures for some residents. The cost may delay his plan to start a family, the main reason he moved to the community. Hutchinson said he did some research into the financial assistance that may be available for the project and found it may only be available to elderly and disabled people with no income and low assets.

“What do you plan to do or what would you say to the people who feel like they’re staring down the barrel of an economic gun here?” Hutchinson asked.

Village council member Kathy Mastenbrook answered: “There are a lot of unknowns currently in the planning that won’t be known further for some time.” It’s possible some other forms of local assistance could open in the future, she said, adding she couldn’t be certain.

“We do not know what the cost to the homeowner is going to be until a potential project is submitted to the state through the application process and the USDA comes back and tells us, ‘This is what you can receive in grants to help offset those costs,’’’ Mastenbrook replied, adding she’s uncomfortable for “any of us to project to anyone here what this is going to cost.”

She said once they get information back from the USDA, village officials will begin having bigger conversations on costs with the community. “We want to … make sure we are doing our best to secure any funds that might be available to us,” Mastenbrook said. USDA loans could cover the costs for as much as 45 percent of the project, although that’s uncertain.

Wightman and Associates representative Alan Smaka echoed Mastenbrook’s comments. “We really won’t know truly what the cost of this project is until it’s in hand,” Smaka said. “But it’s a refining process all along the way.”

Stodola encouraged everyone to take a long view on things and to compare the costs of sewer vs septic. He also encouraged people to not be afraid to ask for public assistance in paying for the project. “We will try to find every possible opportunity to help fund everybody,” Stodola said.

Hutchinson said he appreciated the answers, but added they weren’t what he was looking for. He noted that the septic system in his home is new and that his roof is going to need replacement. And there are other improvements he wants to make to his home. Hutchinson said he didn’t anticipate he would have problems paying the costs of sewer over seven to eight years, adding that he would be forced to make lifestyle changes.

Earlier in the meeting, Gunnett went over his own estimates for the costs of sewer for his own home over the course of 40 years. He noted the combined costs of everything were a little over $50,000.

Hutchinson addressed that number.

“That is a child’s tuition. That is the improvements on the home that I want to make. That is a lot more than it is going to cost to do that roof,” Hutchinson said. He said he didn’t like the uncertainty of there “may be” loans and assistance available. He added, “There will be people whose homes get foreclosed upon.” That was met with a round of applause.

Stodola responded by noting that this is a challenge faced by everyone. “We’re all in this together,” he said. He compared it to getting a car loan. “We’re going to have bills, we can’t tell you that you won’t,” he said, adding that even those with septic systems will face long-run costs anyway. Stodola said he was told recently his own septic field was a few years away from failing and he is now facing replacement costs himself. “I sympathize with your concerns. We will try our very best to help support you if we can,” Stodola said.

Resident Will Bogema said the issue affects too many people for the decision to be made by a small group and asked if the project could be put to a village vote. “We should get a say-so in this because this decision is huge,” Boegma said. “This is an astronomical cost. There’s no way a project of this magnitude should go through without a vote. Ever.”

That statement was met with thunderous applause.

Building sewer is not an issue that goes on a ballot, Gunnett responded. He recommended starting a petition for citizens to get their concerns across. “That, in my opinion and many people’s opinion, is the best way to do it,” Gunnett said. Later in the meeting, someone suggested the possibility of a petition on the village council’s website. Gunnett said village officials may look further at doing that in the future.

Gunnett acknowledged the subject of sewers has always been a hot button issue in the village. Efforts to build a system have been started at least four times before. He said he expects there will be much more debate before a decision is made.

“This is a very contentious subject and it’s been that way for 40-something years,” Gunnett said.

He encouraged people to attend additional meetings to come. The next meeting will include members of the school board who will be on hand to discuss the possibility of parallel school bond and sewer projects.

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