By Sue Moore
The possibility that neighboring villages of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg can share costs of a sewage disposal system has put Schoolcraft’s immediate plan to go it alone on hold.
Schoolcraft’s village Council had scheduled a Jan. 29 special meeting to consider when to set a public hearing date, the first step to finance the project. At that meeting, Council President Keith Gunnett told residents and fellow council members he had learned about Vicksburg’s interest in looking at the costs the morning before at a meeting of the South County Sewer and Water Authority.
There was another reason to delay the process, Gunnett explained: “I found out that once we have the public hearing and vote to go ahead, we couldn’t stop the process any time in the future. I thought we could stop the process at several other points.”
Schoolcraft had been counting on getting finished cost numbers by scheduling a public hearing and then applying to the United States Department of Agriculture/Rural Development (USDA) for a grant. “Once we got the numbers, we were told that we could either move forward or back out. Apparently, that was not true,” Gunnett said.
“Just yesterday, I was told that the only way to back out of the sewer project, once the public hearing is held, is to go to Circuit Court during the 45-day rescission period. This is the only window after we have applied to the USDA for a grant and loan. You know how much that would cost to go to court and probably not result in our favor if we want out?”
“I asked questions at the Authority meeting and got answers that were new to me,” Gunnett said. “The whole point of applying for the money from USDA was to get the costs firmed up so we know the accurate numbers. Right now, we don’t know that. What we have are the numbers that [engineering consultants] Wightman & Associates have given us previously. Those were the highest possible costs and didn’t figure any reduction if we were able to get a grant from USDA – which we believe we are eligible for.”
Authority members agreed to Gunnett’s request for a time extension to study the process further, giving his village two months to do so.
Vicksburg’s representative, Council President Bill Adams, suggested at that meeting that his village might be interested in joining with Schoolcraft on the sewer project if doing so would reduce their costs below that of the Vicksburg’s current sewage disposal structure: transporting sewage through Portage to the Kalamazoo waste treatment plant. “It’s part of our due diligence to look at this option.”
“This was a bombshell,” Gunnett said at the Schoolcraft meeting. “It would change everything. Now I think we will probably see that a two-month extension will go at least another month or more while Wightman recalculates the numbers, with Vicksburg being added at the front of the project. This would give everyone a little breathing room,” Gunnett said.
Trustee Mike Rochholz said that if Vicksburg would come in, that would change the scope of things, requiring a [sewage treatment] plant to handle chemicals and the combined volume. He thought a lagoon system that has been proposed would be out of the question. Wightman consultants have said that they could build it either way.
Trustee John Stodola, who also attended the Authority meeting, said, “We need to get our own legal advice and find out our exposure to the costs going forward. This is a very abrupt change in direction. We need the costs in writing. It’s more important to do this right than to do it quickly. I’m willing to sit down with anybody who has concerns.”
There was an avalanche of questions and comments from the 25-plus people in the audience. They appeared split about equally for and against.
Rochholz asked the Council and citizens to not be divisive with each other. “No matter which way this decision lands, someone is going to be unhappy.”
Who owns the sewer system if it is constructed, an audience member asked, and what is the process?
If Schoolcraft goes ahead with a sewage disposal system, the Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner must form a Drain Board to establish the financing for the project, make the request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for funding, and become a conduit for the project.
“The day-to-day work on engineering and running the sewer would fall to the South County Sewer and Water authority,” Council President Keith Gunnett said, adding that the Authority would own the infrastructure and the treatment plant and collect fees from member communities to operate it. The authority currently services sewer systems around Pickerel and Indian Lakes and in parts of Pavilion Township.
Brady, Pavilion and Schoolcraft townships each send an elected official to sit as a member of the Authority’s board. Schoolcraft and Vicksburg villages have been invited to be official members. For now, their voting power is weighted, with less value than the votes of the other three townships.
They would have equal representation with the other three entities if the sewer project goes through.
The Authority signed a contract with Wightman & Associates some time ago for engineering design for the proposed sewer. The individual municipalities have not contributed funding so far for the engineering work.