November 14, 2012 | LXXII, No. 33

Project shows government not at its best

As most of you know, the town of Coulee Dam is investing (spending) over $5 million to upgrade their “aging” sewer treatment plant. I’ve written letters about this before. The town continues to pursue a design that is both antiquated and unnecessarily expensive while their consulting engineer is disproportionately enriched (they will take a bit over $1 million out of this community). This project impacts the sewer rates of Coulee Dam AND Elmer City, driving those monthly charges to $80 or more.

Typically, a project of this expense and scope would have involved an early and concerted effort for diverse funding … to fund from more than a simple loan. But that wouldn’t have been as easy or as lucrative for their engineering consultant. One of the most likely places to look would have been the Colville Tribe and the Indian Health Service … but this would involve an expansion of the “partnership” and a closer look at the project scope/design, so the Town Council (and their engineer) seemed uninterested. Even though the town began “planning” for this project 10 years ago, and the Facility Plan has a funding/financing section, it was concluded that for money from the Tribe/Indian Health Service, “… it was too difficult to determine how many tribal members are in the service area ….” Took me less than a half an hour! In fact, Mayor Snow complained that he tried, but could not even get the Tribe to return his calls! So I decided to become an activist in order to help us all find a way to both review the project scope/design and find “grant” funding to help with the financing. I contacted the tribe and they were, in fact, interested in learning more. I subsequently met with them three or four times to define the issue and its impact on over 230 native families. The tribe was both gracious and thoughtful. And finally, Mayor Snow really does contact the tribe and drags his interest-conflicted engineers along. The Tribe brings in its Public Works director and the Indian Health Service (IHS) to listen and advise.

The Indian Health Service steps up and appropriately assumes a leadership roll in the quest for funding and promptly suggests that it “may” be able to provide as much as $1.6 million in “grant” monies to help with the project and that it may be able to, through a “government-to-government” connection, bring the USBR to the table with yet additional funding. However, any/all grant funding agencies want to review the design to determine first if money could be saved by a better and/or more efficient design. The town’s response was to ignore (and resist) that request and to push forward with the under-planned, over-designed, and excessively expensive project, even though they know there are viable alternatives at half the cost — ranging upwards from $2.2 million. The IHS even offered to manage and inspect the construction phase, saving even more, but the town, and of course its engineer (who stood to lose almost $400,000), were not interested and were unresponsive!

There is now, not because of any efforts by the town or its mayor, the very real possibility to fund all but $900,000 of this project from “grant” or other non-loan funds, which would make it unnecessary to increase the sewer charges above their current level. Mayor Snow hasn’t even bothered to inform his council of these new and emerging financing options, but claims to be in constant contact with the Indian Health Service Engineer that is no longer spearheading the project … doesn’t even remember the new engineer’s name!

And the town’s engineer? Well, think about it … for each dollar the town saves by reducing project scope costs, they lose between 20 and 30 cents. If the IHS manages and inspects, the town’s engineer will lose, as I mentioned earlier, nearly $400,000, and an arrogant town council will have to admit that their “line-by-line” review of the project scope was, well, not very thorough or thoughtful and driven by their engineer’s self-enriching influence.

The Washington Department of Ecology, the agency providing the $5 million loan, has indicated a willingness to let the project slow down a bit while the community explores other funding options; Coulee Dam, even in the face of this flexibility, has decided to stay on “their” schedule. After all, if their engineer can finish over-designing the project, they will make more money initially and again if there is a redesign! Meanwhile, Elmer City begins exploring alternates of their own — alternates that may prove more cost-effective for them, but would add another 25 percent to the Coulee Dam sewer charges, pushing the Coulee Dam rate to well over $100 per month for every homeowner and customer.

Meanwhile, the Coulee Dam attorney (in the face of his own conflicts-of-interest as the former attorney for Elmer City), finds it productive to disparage my efforts as those of a disgruntled citizen … I guess not realizing that community activism is part of a “right!” All-in-all, government at its best! Government steeped in stubborn arrogance and an ignorance of the better good!

Greg Wilder

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