FRONTENAC — After hearing a wide range of concerns and comments from residents about its plans for water system improvements, the Frontenac City Council voted Monday to move forward with seeking funding for the multi-million dollar project.
To open Monday’s public hearing on the water project, Ben Kramer of Kramer Consulting, LLC gave a presentation about the city’s plans. Kramer noted that a public hearing is a Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) requirement.
“We did have an earlier one that approved the project,” Kramer said. “We are now changing the funding method.”
Previously, the city was planning to fund the project through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program funding with interim funding from KDHE’s State Revolving Fund (SRF).
“So now we are going to move away from the WIFIA and go all with KDHE SRF loan funding, so that’s the reason for the public hearing is to fulfill that obligation,” Kramer said. He added, however, that in addition to changing the funding source, the city was also looking at making some changes to plans for the project itself. Those changes include increased line sizes, as well as installing a new well.
Kramer noted that recent water quality sampling indicated Frontenac’s water supply exceeds the maximum contaminant level for radium, which, along with past samples found to contain unacceptable radium levels, has triggered violations of the city’s water supply permit.
“KDHE has required notices to be sent out each time a violation has occurred,” Kramer said. “Currently the city has had three violations within the previous year.”
Asked about the effects of radium later in the public hearing, Kramer said while serious health effects should not be expected from the city water supply’s current radium levels, they were higher than those allowed by KDHE, and long-term effects of higher levels of radium could include causing cancer among other health problems.
Kramer said the city’s water treatment plant requires upgrades “to provide safe, sanitary, clean drinking water.” Equipment and infrastructure that needs to be replaced at the water treatment plant includes its chlorine feed system, wastewater pumps, filters, deteriorated piping, exhaust fans, and chemical storage building, among other things.
Frontenac’s water treatment plant and water system also needs repairs to its existing 75,000 gallon elevated water storage tank, Kramer said, and his report proposed constructing a new 250,000 gallon elevated storage tank near the existing water treatment plant. Among the items he listed that were discussed at the greatest length during the public hearing were plans to install water softening equipment to reduce radium levels in the city’s water supply.
The estimated total cost of recommended improvements is $12.1 million, Kramer said.
Kramer noted that his cost estimate was based on the assumption of construction starting next spring. All funding for the project will come from a KDHE SRF 30-year loan with a 2.65 percent interest rate, he said.
Because of the city’s radium violations that need to be resolved, KDHE will forgive part of the loan principal, which Kramer calculated at $1,321,485 “that KDHE applies to any equipment or improvements to the water treatment plant that correct or help eliminate the radium exposure,” he said. This leaves the city with a total loan amount of $10,778,515, and estimated annual payments of $523,100. Kramer noted that future regulatory changes could require additional changes to the city’s water system improvement plans.
During the public hearing and citizens’ forum period of the city council meeting prior to it, several residents questioned whether there might be other, cheaper ways to provide water that meets KDHE requirements in Frontenac.
In response to a question from Mayor Linda Grilz about other possible water sources, Kramer said other options would likely not be cheaper than the upgrades to Frontenac’s existing system that he proposed. One option suggested, for example, which Kramer discussed, was that the city could create a lake to supply water.
“Treatment for doing a lake is called surface water treatment, which is much more expensive to do that type of treatment than your groundwater treatment,” Kramer said. Surface water treatment involves many more regulations, he said, and while some rural communities without access to an aquifer build lakes as a solution to their water needs, they also come with many other problems.
Building a lake would require approval from the state’s Division of Water Resources, having a drainage area to supply the lake, and designing a dam, among other considerations, Kramer said. Buying water from elsewhere — another option suggested by some residents at Monday’s city council meeting — would also probably be more costly than the improvements Kramer suggested in his report, he said.
“In the past history of Frontenac we have looked at purchasing water from other sources, and for one, you lose the ability to control your water supply, costs and things, and the cost of buying that water to make those connections can get expensive as well,” Kramer said.
Some council members said they wanted more specific information, however, on what other options the city might have for supplying water.
“We hear that, but we don’t know what the cost is,” said Councilmember Pat Clinton.
Councilmember Mike Snow said he was concerned that Frontenac residents would not be able to pay their water bills, given increased costs from the plan Kramer presented.
Kramer said the city would probably have to pay three to four times more per gallon of water if they bought it from outside suppliers.
Frontenac resident Jim Barone asked the council to slow down its decision making process. Barone, among others, said they would appreciate if the city would be more transparent and communicative, and provide more specific numbers about the costs of various parts of its water system improvement plans.
“All we’ve got here, in my opinion, is an overview at about 30,000 feet,” Barone said, “and I don’t know what the endgame is of the discussion tonight, but before we go further, I for one would request some specificity.”
City Administrator Brad Reams said that what the council was considering approving was just applying for funding, and further steps in the water system improvement plan would need later approval. Reams also said water rates would not be increasing as much as some at the meeting suggested, and that property taxes would not increase because of the water project. Other officials said it was important to get started on water improvements.
“This water project first was considered by the city in 2006, this one that we’re talking about right now,” Mayor Grilz said. “And we have continued to put it off, put it off, put it off, put it off, until now we’ve got a radium issue which makes it difficult to put it off. We have to do something.”
In response to a question during the citizens’ forum prior to the public hearing about funding for the water project, Grilz said there would likely not be a vote by Frontenac citizens on whether to move forward with the water project.
Councilmember Clinton later asked what would happen if the city gave the public a chance to vote on the project and they voted against it, despite the city being in continued violation of KDHE requirements.
City Attorney Tim Fielder said if Frontenac does not demonstrate it is making progress on improving its water system, KDHE could begin fining the city at rates starting at $5,000 per day.
“Essentially, the only way that we’re going to get the cheapest water rate going is to do it ourselves, and we have control of it and we have the ability to pay for it, but it’s not free and it’s not going to be cheap,” Fielder said. “It costs money, and this has been put off year after year after year, and we have individuals who are here tonight that are complaining that we’re spending money, and the answer is yes, but we have to.”
Councilmember LaDonna Pyle also said it was urgent to get started on water improvements, and while she wasn’t happy about having to spend the money, previous council members did not want to either, which led to the city’s current water problems.
“If we don’t invest in our water, we’re going to die as a town,” Pyle said. “We’ve got to do something, and somebody has got to bite the bullet here.”
Councilmember Trey Coleman made a motion to approve moving forward with pursuing funding for Frontenac’s water system improvement project through KDHE’s SRF loan program, which Pyle seconded. The council approved the motion over one opposing vote from Clinton.