Metro-East News

You may have to pay more to fix Belleville’s sewers. City says revenue not enough.

Belleville Mayor on sewer project

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert talks about sewer project.
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Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert talks about sewer project.

It’s been nearly five years since Belleville decided to raise sewer rates 8 percent annually for 12 years as part of a massive overhaul of the city’s sewer system that has 100-year-old pipes.

So if you have noticed your Belleville sewer bill creeping up, you still have at least seven more years to deal with the annual 8 percent increases.

And while the higher fees have been bringing in millions, the revenue so far has fallen short of projections and the city plans to ask the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for more time to complete the mandated sewer projects that may have a final cost ranging from $110 million to $143 million.

When the 8 percent annual increases stop in 2025, a 1 percent annual increase is scheduled to occur until 2047. By that time, your bill will have tripled since the rate increases were approved by the City Council in December 2013.

The rate increases were approved to help pay for wastewater treatment plant improvements; sewer line improvements to prevent sewage from backing up into homes; and to stop combined sewer overflow, which is sewage mixed with stormwater, from entering area creeks.

“I know we’ve done the right thing,” Mayor Mark Eckert said. “It’s just the right thing has a price tag.

“We can’t be a Third World country. We can’t have sewage (going) into our ditches, into our neighborhoods, nobody deserves it backing into their home.”

Your sewer bill is based on the amount of water you use. A household using 4,488 gallons of water a month, which is considered an average amount, can expect to pay $46.63 a month on a sewer bill this year and by 2025 this sewer bill would be $79.98.

A household using 1,496 gallons, which is classified as a low user such as a one-person household, can expect to pay $26.24 this year and $45 by 2025.

All of the work is mandated by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which approved a long-term control plan with the city on Dec. 31, 2007, and has since added other required work. The city needs to do the work in order to keep its permit to operate a wastewater treatment plant.

Here are four highlights you need to know:

Since the major sewer work began in 2010, the city has authorized $87.26 million for sewer projects across the city and received a $5 million grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to bring the cost down to $82.26 million. The city has been using low-interest loans from the Illinois EPA to pay for the projects finished in recent years.

Additional work still needs to be done and this work could cost from $35 million to $60 million. But the types of projects have not been determined yet and this is why there is such a wide range in the estimated costs. For example, work in the Portland Avenue area could cost as much as $25 million or as low as $1.5 million. Also, engineering work has not yet been done to determine the exact costs and some repairs underway may reduce the amount of work that will be required in the future, according to Royce Carlisle, the director of the city’s sewer department.

The estimated revenue projections have not been met every year since rates were increased in 2013. In the past four years, the city has received $28.1 million in sewer revenue while the projected revenue during that time period was $34.4 million for a shortfall of $6.3 million. Ward 2 Alderman Mike Buettner noted that city’s population has dropped according to U.S. Census estimates and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which was a major sewer customer, has relocated to O’Fallon. Treasurer Dean Hardt said more residents may be conserving their water use since they learned about the rate increases.

The city originally was required to finish the sewer improvements by 2024 but that deadline since has been extended to September 2033. Eckert said the city has not yet formally asked the state for more time to complete future sewer work but the city intends to ask for another extension.

“We just are hopeful that we can take a little bit of a deep breath before start another major phase,” Eckert said.

Kim Biggs, spokeswoman for Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email, “The city would need to justify any extension of that date before Illinois EPA would modify the permit.”

To date, Belleville has complied with the state’s requirements since the long-term control plan was signed in 2007, Biggs said.

Completed projects

The first three phases of sewer work have been finished.

The first phase cost $48.2 million and included major upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant at 498 Environmental Drive near the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds.

“The plant has been greatly improved,” Eckert said. “We brought it into the 21st century with modern pumps, modern electrical panels.”

Carlisle said one of the main changes involved the way the wastewater is treated before it is released into Richland Creek.

The plant workers previously used chlorine as a disinfectant and now they use a system of UV, or ultra violet, light to disinfect the effluent.

“We used to store 10 tons of liquid chlorine here on the plant at one time, which was a hazard,” Carlisle said. “We had to have a risk management plan for that.”

In another improvement at the plant, the waste is now treated in an aerobic process that heats sludge to 140 degrees. Previously, the plant used an anaerobic process that produced methane gas, which Carlisle said was dangerous for plant workers to handle.

The plant now has more capacity than what is currently needed but Eckert said this was needed to prepare for future growth.

“Certainly when you’re going to spend this kind of money, you have to build for the future,” Eckert said. “And to not build for the future, would have been a mistake.”

Also in first phase, the city built a large pump station on the east side.

“We eliminated six old, dilapidated pump stations and put them into one,” Carlisle said.

A pump station, which also is known as a lift station, typically will collect sewage in a lower elevation area and then pump it into a gravity sewer line that eventually leads to the wastewater treatment plant. This process is similar to sump pumps often used in homes.

Phase 2 cost $3.99 million and included work to build gravity sewers to prevent combined sewer overflow going into two creeks.

An overflow occurs during heavy rainstorms when sewage mixes with stormwater and then overflows into a creek.

Phase 2 was designed to stop the overflow into Richland Creek at South Belt East and Illinois 159 and the overflow into East Creek at Freeburg Avenue and Van Buren Street.

In Phase 3, the city spent $22.5 million. This work included a new pump station.

Belleville has installed a holding tank off East Belle Avenue and Hecker Street for $2.6 million. In past years, rainwater combined with sewage overflow had been pumped into ditches in this area. Also, this combined overflow would back up into some residents’ homes.

Now that the holding tank is in operation, the overflow is stored in the tank. This overflow is mostly rainwater and it is sent back to the city’s sewer system after a rainstorm ends.

Current projects

The fourth phase of the city’s sewer work will cost $8.7 million and includes a new pump station that is under construction next to Lindenwood University-Belleville near the intersection of North 23rd Street and West A Street.

Buettner criticized the installation of a wall between the pump station and the Fred J. Kern dormitory. The wall is supposed to block sound from the generator at the pump station and provide aesthetics.

Eckert said the city agreed to install the wall because Lindenwood donated the land needed for the pump station.

“Lindenwood worked with us from Day 1 on donating the property and giving us the easements,” Eckert said. “They told us from the beginning they would like some kind of wall.”

Buettner, who lives on West A Street near the pump station, said trains rumble by the neighborhood every day and that it wasn’t necessary to buffer any sound coming from the pump station.

He also said the original cost estimate of the wall was $12,000 but the actual cost is expected to be $45,000.

“I guess the issue is, why would we write a blank check, why would we agree to something not knowing what the price is?” Buettner said. “That’s the kind of stuff that absolutely drives me crazy.”

Eckert said the $12,000 figure was a rough estimate. “He knows that,” he said of Buettner.

The state still wants Belleville to complete several other projects by 2033.

This work includes improvements off 66th Street, 88th Street and Portland Avenue. It also will include an additional disinfection system.

Sticker shock

Eckert said he remembers meeting with Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials in Springfield several years ago when they discussed the sewer work Belleville needed to do.

“We came home from there and I was dumbfounded,” Eckert said. The cost at that time for all the mandated work was “ballparked” at about $88 million.

Eckert said since the early 2000s and especially since the 2008 recession, it has been harder to get grants for sewer work. However, the city plans to seek help from the U.S. Corps of Engineers on a project that the federal agency would cover 70 percent of the costs while the city would be responsible for the remaining 30 percent.

Sewer system improvements have been needed in the city for several years, Eckert said.

“Our forefathers didn’t want to do this and when I say forefathers, I’m going back to the ’60s,” Eckert said. “They chose not to tackle a lot of this stuff.

“Back then there were some grants that would have paid some very significant amounts,” Eckert said. “We missed some opportunity I think it’s fair to say and we’re paying the price today.”

How to save on your sewer bill

The city of Belleville has announced two ways for residents to save money on their sewer bills, which are based on how much water you use.

If you use water for a pool or for watering your lawn and garden in the summer time, you can request a credit to your account for the water that is not treated by the wastewater treatment plant.

Here are details on the two ways to get a credit:

Buy a water meter for your outdoor water line and bring it to City Hall before the watering season begins and have it registered with the sewer billing department. Install the meter on your outdoor line. At the end of the watering season, bring the meter back to City Hall. The meter reading will be recorded, and the amount of usage will be calculated and credited to the account.

Contact the sewer billing department in October after the summer watering season. The sewer billing department will see if you are eligible for a credit by determining the average water usage on your account prior to the watering season and then compare that to what you used during the summer.

For more information, contact the sewer billing department at 618-233-6810.

Mike Koziatek: 618-239-2502, @MikeKoziatekBND