The Fire Chief Project: One way to make the case

A Michigan community invites the public to see firsthand why the plant upgrade – and rate hike

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So your clean-water plant needs a big upgrade. It’s going to cost a lot of money. You need the public to get behind it. What can you do?

The plant team in city of Clarlevoix, a Lake Michigan community at the northern end of Michigan’s lower peninsula, is holding a plant tour for residents ahead of a public hearing on the upgrade proposal.

The Charlevoix Courier reports that the city’s treatment plant needs $11 million worth of upgrades in the next few years to comply with stricter permit limits. The newspaper reported, “Michigan state officials issued the new permit in April 2011, and Charlevoix’s wastewater treatment plant cannot currently meet the state’s standard for wastewater discharge. City officials said the facility now approaches the end of its useful life and significant upgrades are required.”

Paying for the upgrade will mean raising sewer rates by 71 percent over the next five years. To help explain what the investment is needed, city officials will hold a one-hour afternoon tour of the treatment plant, followed that same evening by a public hearing.

This is a wise move. It would be easy for people to show up at a public hearing to complain about the cost of the upgrades, without understanding the reasons for them and without knowing anything about the treatment plant’s current condition. This way, at least some of the people at the hearing will have seen for themselves why the plant needs an upgrade and will have been told the reasons behind it.

In the new story, Rob Straebel, city manager, observes, “We hope residents will take this opportunity to tour the city’s wastewater treatment plant and learn more about a complex and fascinating treatment process that most of us take for granted. It is important to educate our residents about some of the challenges in working with a 40-year old plant and better describe how the city will comply with future state ammonia discharge limits.” 

The plant first of all needs modernizing because it was built 42 years ago and some of the equipment is approaching the end of its life or no longer meets today’s performance and safety standards. The biggest driver, though, is new permit limits on ammonia that take effect next October and in December 2015.

Being up front with the public about the project and its rationale mimics the way fire departments justify their capital investments. It helps advance the aims of The Fire Chief Project:

  • Raise clean-water operators to the status of the fire chief.
  • Make kids grow up wanting to be clean-water operators.


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