After years of searching for solutions, Bolivar’s leaders hope they’ve found a creative way to avoid imminent sewer and water rate hikes for city residents and a continuous burden on the city’s budget.
Following a closed special session Wednesday, Nov. 27, Bolivar’s board of aldermen voted to approve a contract with Liberty Utilities to privatize the city’s water and wastewater systems.
Under the agreement — pending voter approval in the April 7, 2020, municipal election — the city would sell its water and wastewater systems, including all property and equipment, to Liberty Utilities for $23.5 million.
The city would also franchise out water and wastewater services to the utility company for 20 years, per the agreement.
While Liberty Utilities wouldn’t pay a franchise fee for the first seven years of the contract, the agreement requires the company to pay the city 5% of its gross revenues earned in Bolivar for the remainder of the contract.
According to a City of Bolivar news release, the agreement to “transfer responsibility of Bolivar’s water and wastewater services” comes from a need “to comply with new regulatory demands on Bolivar customers.”
In the release, Mayor Chris Warwick, who was absent from Wednesday’s meeting, said the proposed partnership “protects our water and wastewater systems; delivers safe, clean, affordable water; and protects consumers from a costly EPA-forced rate increase.”
The release said Liberty Utilities “has extensive experience operating water and wastewater systems and ensuring their compliance with federal, state and local requirements.”
Compliance with Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards and wasteload allocation set for Bolivar’s Town Branch and Piper Creek have been a struggle for the city for over a decade.
In 1998, Piper Creek, near the city’s wastewater treatment plant at Rt. D and Mo. 32, was placed on the Missouri Clean Water Commission’s 303(d) list of impaired waterways.
The EPA issued a consent order requiring the city to reduce inflow and infiltration by submitting a plan of action — including short-term and long-term capital investments — for elimination of sanitary sewer overflows, bypasses and backups in 2007.
Three years later, the agency issued a total maximum daily load for Bolivar’s Piper Creek and Town Branch, which the release said “imposes very low phosphorus and nitrogen limits that are unachievable with the city’s current system.”
The board unanimously approved a variance this August, detailing the city’s proposed plans and timelines — as well as subsequent rate increases — to address the EPA standards as part of a lawsuit the city filed against the agency in 2016.
The variance, developed by Nebraska-based HDR Engineering, addresses three types of improvements — baseline projects, wet weather projects and nutrient removal projects — to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, as previously reported in the BH-FP.
With costs reaching up to around $9.3 million, as well as annual operation and maintenance costs up to around $191,000, the hefty price tags would not come without a cost to Bolivar’s residents and business owners.
According to the variance, incremental improvements over 20 years would bring with it incremental increases to sewer rates.
“The city simply does not have the resources available to comply with EPA’s consent order without raising water and wastewater rates to close to $100 per month in order to fix our out-of-date system,” Warwick said in the release.
The mayor called Liberty Utilities a “trusted utility partner.”
“As our electric provider, Liberty knows Bolivar, they know how to comply with complex federal regulations, and, most importantly, they are committed to the health of our community,” Warwick said.
The release said the company plans to make “much-needed improvements to ensure the delivery of safe, clean, affordable water services to its Bolivar customers.”
The $23.5 million payment from Liberty Utilities would allow leaders to “retire the city’s debt and make investments in other city priorities,” the release said.
Bolivar’s aldermen approved three ordinances detailing the agreement and ballot language for the April election with 6-0-1 votes on each issue in Wednesday’s meeting.
Ethel Mae Tennis, Steve Skopec, Michael Ryan, Steve Sagaser, Thane Kifer and Charles Keith voted to approve the ordinances. Alexis Neal was absent, and Justin Ballard, who led the meeting in Warwick’s absence, abstained.
Ballard said his abstention is due to a conflict of interest.
“My family business is septic tank cleaning,” Ballard said. “I use that treatment plant every day, five days a week, and have for the last 12 years. It’s not so much the amount of money that my family business pays to the city. It is access to that treatment plant and location of it.”
He said the next closest treatment facility is on the north side of Springfield.
“It would dramatically influence and affect my family business,” he said, adding he abstained out of “an abundance of caution to remove any appearance of impropriety or conflict.”
After the meeting, city attorney Kerry Douglas said statute requires the city to hold at least one public hearing more than 30 days before the issue appears on the ballot in the April election.