Metro-East News

St. Clair Twp. board puts off vote on study to determine if sewer customers can be taken back

An overall photograph of the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday evening.
An overall photograph of the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday evening. News-Democrat

St. Clair Township Board of Trustees on Tuesday night put off a vote on an engineering study necessary to determine whether some township sewer customers can be taken back from Swansea.

The board has previously discussed the option of bringing infrastructure back online that was put out of service in the 1990s. Supervisor Dave Barnes said “between 1,500 and 2,000 customers” affected by the Swansea-St. Clair Township Sewer Services Contract might be able to be serviced by the township’s sewer plant instead of Swansea’s if the equipment is reactivated and necessary improvements are made.

The areas that could potentially be serviced by the township include “primarily Sierra Drive, some of Piper Hills, down to Frank Scott Parkway,” Barnes said during the meeting.

Swansea took over billing about 3,200 township residents whose wastewater is treated by the Swansea sewer plant under the contract. It took effect March 1. Those residents are charged 1.3 times the rate customers living in Swansea are charged for the service, and they see a $7.34 monthly “transport fee” on their bills.

The fee was mandated in the agreement by the township and took effect following approval of an ordinance at the board’s meeting last month. It is collected by Swansea and returned to the township for maintenance of sewer lines that transport wastewater from the township to the Swansea plant. It includes percentages for sewer plant employee salaries, insurance, postage, vehicles, phones and Internet, electric and gas, among other things.

These residents’ bills increased by an average of $30.50 every two months under the contract.

If the infrastructure were able to be reactivated, the residents who could be served by the township as a result would also be billed by the township again, presumably bringing their sewer bills down.

A township engineer, Brian Buchheit of HMG Engineers, Inc., was present at the meeting to explain the transport fee and to explain the costs associated with the engineering study of the township infrastructure.

To determine the cost of the fee, Buchheit said engineers looked at past budget reports for the operation and maintenance costs that could be “attributable to wastewater collection.” Buchheit called this a “significant” portion of overall costs.

He said the equation used was the total cost of wastewater collection divided by the number of customers, divided by 12. It is “meant to be recalculated annually,” he said.

Buchheit said the cost of the engineering study would be $4,700 initially, and if it moves to the second phase of study, the total cost will not exceed $10,000.

Because the wastewater collection system is currently routed to Swansea, Buchheit said it would be a two part process to determine the possibility of servicing some township customers.

First, he said, engineers would have to determine how many additional customers the township sewer plant could accommodate — the excess capacity. Then, engineers would have to determine how to get the wastewater there.

Trustee Mary Carroll said during the meeting that the lift stations were likely deactivated and the sewer customers’ wastewater rerouted to Swansea’s plant for a reason.

“Nobody seems to know the history,” she said.

Buchheit said the lift stations have been dormant for longer than HMG Engineers, Inc., has been working with the township.

Barnes said he was unaware of the lift station’s existence until recently.

“I knew nothing about it until after the contract was signed,” he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Barnes said the lift stations were discovered by the sewer foreman when a repair was taking place at the plant in the area where the lift stations are located.

“If you don’t know to ask, then you don’t know,” Barnes said.

Trustee Greg Hipskind suggested focusing on the legality of taking customers back from Swansea before doing a study to see if it is possible.

“What’s to stop them (Swansea) from suing us?” Hipskind said, because the two municipalities have a contract.

“We’re not sitting here trying to figure out, if the contract’s dumped, that we’ll have the infrastructure to take on all 3,500 customers, so that’s why I said explore the legal options before you activate the lift stations,” Hipskind said.

Carroll said she does not think the township can “just take customers without reopening the negotiations.”

Hipskind called the contract “the root of the problem.”

“We need to put our resources toward combating the contract with Swansea,” Hipskind said. “The contract that was conceived is not beneficial to us at all.”

Buchheit said the “terms and conditions” of the contract was not a part of his job. His responsibility was in cost analysis.

In other business, the board appointed Barnes and Township Clerk Brenda Reed as both Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act officers, and authorized up to one more OMA/FOIA officer position to be filled by an employee.

Trustee Jaynie Wells said it “might take some of the politics out of it” to allow employees to hold the position.

The St. Clair Township website lists the supervisor as FOIA officer for the township. The municipality did not, however, previously have an OMA officer.

“If we’d have had one previously, we wouldn’t have had to do it tonight,” Barnes said of the position.

The board also passed a resolution regarding the release of executive session minutes from June 24, 2014; July 22, 2014; Aug. 26, 2014; and Oct. 28, 2014.

The meeting was held on the third Tuesday of the month instead of the board’s usual meeting time on the fourth Tuesday because Barnes was not available Tuesday, June 23. The board approved moving the meeting to June 16 at its annual meeting.

St. Clair Township Board of Trustees meets next at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 28 at 107 Service Street in Swansea.