News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

NSSA discusses ownership, operations of sewer plant

The North Santiam Sewer Authority (NSSA) is headed into the new year with important questions to answer about who will own and operate a proposed regional sewer system.

Phase I of the system is moving forward as Marion County finalizes a location for the wastewater treatment plant in Mill City and the path of a pipeline connecting it to Gates.

The NSSA Board must now consider whether or not the agency itself will own the plant or if Mill City should own the system, as not all member cities are directly impacted by Phase I.

They are also considering whether dedicated staff should be hired or if operations should be outsourced to Marion County, which has greater staffing and administrative resources.

The board has asked its advisors to gather information on what options are available and what would be required to make a specific decision, to be presented at future meetings. 

The Board’s next scheduled meeting is Dec. 4 at Mill City City Hall.

NSSA is pursuing a regional sewer plant connecting Mill City, Gates, Detroit and Idanha to address failing septic infrastructure throughout the Canyon. 

Phase I, connecting Mill City and Gates, is under way through a $50 million pandemic relief grant and is expected to be completed by 2027. Phase II, connecting Detroit and Idanha, is dependent on more than $50 million in additional funding and is planned for completion by 2028.

Initial development for Phase I is almost complete as the county finalizes locations for the plant and inter-city pipeline.

Marion County Public Works Director Brian Nicholas told the board during its Nov. 20 meeting that they were close to finalizing the purchase of property in Mill City for the new plant. They were also talking with ODOT about a perpetual easement to build a pipeline along a railroad alignment to connect the system to Gates.

Nicholas said he is “pretty confident” these deals will go through, and said securing locations for Phase I construction represents a major milestone.

“We have been working for the last year to get to this crossroads,” said Nicholas. “Now this board can really start to do its work which is to decide … what’s feasible for NSSA, feasible for the communities, what’s the best overall approach.”

One of these decisions centers around system ownership. 

On Nov. 20, board chair and Mill City Mayor Tim Kirsch said when NSSA was formed in 2020, the intent was for the agency to own and manage the system directly. With the unexpected influx of ARPA funds, the project was split into two phases and Kirsch noted not all member cities benefit from Phase I.

“Is it reasonable that Detroit and Idanha have voting power over what Mill City and Gates are doing?” said Kirsch.

It was proposed that Mill City and Gates could potentially own the initial system with a plan to expand ownership after Phase II was complete.

Board member and Gates Mayor Ron Evans said his city lacks the resources to assume part ownership and Mill City could be the sole owner initially. He said Mill City already maintains its own sewer plant and has the assets and experience to take on the new system. This would keep the project on schedule.

Kirsch said, if this is the path NSSA chooses, they would need to work out additional details. 

He said one option is for Mill City to directly bill Gates customers and to own and maintain the pipes connecting Gates residents to the system. He said Gates could also take on those direct responsibilities and instead Mill City could charge the City of Gates a contracted fee for sewer services.

Also at issue is how the new system would be staffed, with personnel expected to cost nearly two thirds of the operational budget.

Nicholas said the owner could save money through a contract with the county, as maintenance, administration, training and management could be incorporated into his department’s current duties. He said, through economy of scale, the county could potentially dedicate a part-time level of staffing to keep the system going rather than a full-time staff hired directly by the owner.

Kirsch said, while this arrangement could save NSSA “a ton of money,” they would not know the impact of contracting with the county for certain until their attorneys could craft an agreement.

“The devil’s in the details,” said Kirsch.

He said keeping costs low is a high priority for NSSA as they want to ensure the new system will be a benefit and not a burden to ratepayers. While the board was prepared to discuss potential rates Nov. 20, the discussion was postponed until the issues of ownership and operations could be addressed.

“We are fighting hard to keep a very low rate,” said Kirsch.

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