Pinewood Sanitary District’s Ambitious Plans for the Future
PSD has been in the news a lot lately! Major changes are afoot, which necessitate transparent and frequent communication. The “Dueling Toilets” feature article of last month in the Pinewood News highlighted many of the current issues that have limited the sanitary district from being able to move forward with extensive collection system repairs and replacements mandated by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. This resulted in both layoffs and unfilled positions at the district, nearly halving the staff from thirteen employees to eight. Basically, the lack of cash flow from “unpaid” construction costs from the West side, along with soaring inflationary cost increases, has forced the PSD Board to take drastic action to remain solvent. The Board voted to increase the monthly Operaton and Maintenance (O & M) fee to $54.90 per household/location, and the inflationary increase became effective on July 1, 2023.
A little history
In 2020, the District was cited by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) with two administrative consent orders. Basically, this is a demand by ADEQ that Pinewood Sanitary District take the necessary steps to address the aging collections system that is allowing massive water infiltration into the sewer lines from leaking manholes and aged lateral and main sewer lines. The “leaking” conditions have resulted in numerous “bypasses,” where treated effluent has had to be released into the Oak Creek and Verde Valley tributary complex. This is a big “NO, NO!” ADEQ oversees the District and has the power and ability to shut the operation down, fine us, and ultimately take the District over to be run by the state or county. If this were to occur, the impact on real estate values in Munds Park would be disastrous. The costs associated with operating the sewer plant would skyrocket due to government oversight and requirements. All construction, building, expansion, and remodeling would entirely cease. For the community to operate and function normally, a working sewer system is a requirement.
A similar situation occurred in Munds Park in the early 1990’s, which resulted in ADEQ enforcing some of these policies, and the results were painful and took years to remedy. The PSD Board took the matter seriously and hired an engineering firm in 2020. After nearly two years of unkept promises and deadlines, the Board ended up discharging that Engineering company, whose plans and suggested solutions included spending millions of dollars on temporary holding tanks. A new search began for a local engineering firm, with Ardurra Engineering being hired this spring to lead the District through a multi-year process to address the aged infrastructure and collections systems.
This all occurred while the Board of Directors structure changed with the departure of several long-term directors, a change in the District Manager after more than twenty years, and three different chairmen leading the Board over a period of just a few years. Upon installation as Chairman in 2022, I had to invest an inordinate amount of time deciphering the lay of the land. I analyzed the operation from numerous angles and determined that significant changes in operation needed to be implemented in order to address the chronic issues facing the district. The financial scenario was bleak and unsupported, business relationships needed restructuring and nurturing, and the entire operating structure of the district needed to be evaluated and ultimately overhauled. The District was “lagging” behind the times technologically and operationally.
Last March, after constructing a five-year operating plan and cleaning up the financials, the Board had a much better idea of the extent of the financial duress. It became evident that major cost-saving changes needed to be implemented to remedy the impending financial problems. Every component of the operation was analyzed, and expense reduction plans were initiated. Mailing and Billing conversion were implemented, computer and internet support systems and operations were changed, expenses were slashed wherever possible, including supplies, housekeeping, employee life and medical insurance expenses, payroll, and benefit burden. Ultimately, a significant reduction in employee expenses was necessary with census reduction resulting in layoffs.
A long-range capital expense plan was developed, the first one since 2014, and unused, aging, or antiquated equipment was identified and sold. An “O & M” operating increase was instituted on July 1st to adjust required operating income to be able to absorb the last three years’ inflation increases of 8.5%. Unfortunately, as employees retired or relocated, they were not replaced, and then the layoff of three additional employees became necessary in order to begin operating in the black.
Where we are now
This brings us to where we are now. The new engineering company, working hand in hand with the board of directors and staff, have identified the need to replace miles and miles of failing lateral lines from the forty-one miles of sewer transfer lines in the Park. Hundreds of leaking manhole covers must be reworked, refitted, or replaced altogether. The plant filters need to be updated, a larger aerobic digester installed, pumps need to be replaced, pump stations must be updated and replaced.... A whole lot of work needs to be done to be able to address the capacity of the plant and its ability to handle the growing flows associated with our growing population, as well as prepare for future expansion. It has been years coming and is now here, staring us in the face.
In November, there will be a mail-in general election where Munds Park full-time residents will be asked to approve a Water Infrastructure Improvement loan of up to $15 million dollars. This is known as a WIFA loan. It is money that is offered by the federal government at a low-interest rate loan to be used for projects like this. It is imperative that this loan be approved by the voters of Munds Park so that we can move forward in 2024 and begin making the repairs to the system that allow us to flush our toilets. Failure of this vote is not an option, as the result would be catastrophic, even more costly, and will be forcefully implemented by ADEQ.
The repairs will be done in stages beginning earnestly in the spring of 2024. As the work progresses, financial draws would be approved by the Board from the WIFA monies so work can be initiated in the worst impacted/affected areas of Munds Park. Upon completion of the project, the Board anticipates that the monthly sewer bill may be as high as $85 a month. This will depend upon ADEQ enforced requirements. Hopefully, the necessary work will be limited by decisions to eliminate non-functioning lift stations and portions of the system that can be replaced, resulting in the efficient elimination of the environmental concerns and impacts associated with the leaking collection system.
The PSD Board is unified in addressing these serious operating issues for the plant in order to maintain a safe and environmentally conscious operation for all of Munds Park residents, visitors, and future generations. For those interested in learning more about the process, the District holds monthly meetings at the PSD office on the second Thursday of each month at 3 pm.