Some naysayers would have you believe that the laundry list of problems at the Pinewood Sanitary District was caused by malfeasance, inaction, and ineptitude. There is some reality in that assumption. Decisions made twenty years ago by various individuals have come back to haunt the District with the current operational issues, lack of management policy and procedures, lack of certifications, protocols and organization required to operate a well-run business. Those problems have been identified and addressed over the past two years by a hard-working, committed Board of Directors and several key essential staff members who lived through the shenanigans of the past. Many know exactly what I am referring to as it was not a quietly kept secret over the past two decades.
The reality of our current situation is that work, which should have been planned, orchestrated, and implemented a decade ago, is now long overdue in an aging sewer district plant that is behind the times. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has imposed state-enforced requirements upon us. Our only options are to either make the necessary repairs to the plant and collection system or face fines, penalties, and mandates from ADEQ. The latter would be both painful and costly for the Munds Park community.
Over the last two years, we have managed to decipher, untangle, and align “real” financial budgets. We’ve constructed a five-year working budget, formulated a ten-year capital needs assessment, and identified the structural changes necessary to streamline our financial accounting and office systems. The Board voted to reduce office administration expenses by 50%, switch from monthly to quarterly billing, and reduce postage and other administrative costs. We revamped the employee benefits package, saving thousands of dollars monthly. The high computer and internet support costs were slashed by more than 50% and replaced with swifter, more cost-efficient alternatives. As employees retired or relocated, their positions remained vacant until the Board could establish a conservative and feasible budget. After thorough assessment by the District Manager and the Board, employee layoffs were executed to align the financials for WIFA loan approval.
The Pinewood Sanitary District is currently well-positioned to plan and execute the ADEQ-mandated repairs, while also preparing for the future growth and needs of the Munds Park community. We have made substantial progress in collecting outstanding construction fees from businesses and individuals who sought annexation into the District between 2003 and 2014. Both Pinewood Partners Development (a 23-acre area south of Agee’s) and Shuster Company Properties have either settled their construction fees in full or set up an independent escrow, with the funds scheduled for distribution to the Sanitary District after the November 7th election. Currently, Inspire Communities RV Park remains the sole entity yet to comply, but a judicial decision on this matter is expected soon.
WE HAVE MADE INCREDIBLE PROGRESS IN RESOLVING ISSUES AND PROBLEMS THAT ORIGINATED DECADES AGO.
If you’ve been following the Pinewood News over the past year, you’re aware of the transparency the Board has championed throughout Munds Park. The Board’s dedication to rectifying past mistakes has brought us to the brink of a bond vote. If you would like to catch up, you can read all our articles online at www.ThePinewoodNews.com.
As with any aging facility, repairs become necessary over the years as equipment becomes obsolete. In the past three years, the Pinewood Sanitary District has been subject to two separate administrative consent orders issued by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).
ADEQ oversees all sanitary and wastewater districts in Arizona. They possess the authority to mandate repairs and improvements in special taxing districts, levy fines for inaction, and even shut down an entire sewer system if it negatively impacts the environment or fails to meet the minimum acceptable standards as prescribed by law.
Since 2020, PSD has experienced excessive seasonal water flows through the plant. This has necessitated the release of large amounts of water bypasses to prevent plant backups and potential failures. Essentially, the sixty-year-old sewer manholes are leaking profusely, allowing substantial volumes of water to infiltrate the sewer system. This results in bypass releases into the Oak Creek and Verde Valley River tributary systems. Such releases are prohibited by state law, leading to violations each time they occur. The facility has faced dozens of these bypasses and has been sanctioned by ADEQ through Consent Orders. The District’s only recourse is to hold an election to raise bond money to address the leaky collection system. Though the plant was designed with a maximum flow capacity of 600,000 gallons, it has seen flows exceeding a million gallons a day on multiple occasions over the past two years.
Simultaneously, the District confronts another pressing set of issues. Due to age, the main sewer lines and connecting lateral lines are all showing signs of failure. Just last month, a major line collapsed at Stallion and Lobo on the Northeast side of Munds Park. This collapse resulted in sewage leakage onto the ground, requiring an immediate $50,000 emergency repair and disrupting sewer service to forty-two homes in the area. This problem is pervasive throughout the forty-one miles of sewer lines in the Park.
By collaborating with the engineering firm Ardurra from Flagstaff, both the District staff and board have formulated a plan to address the repairs in stages, starting in spring 2024. The areas with the highest concentrations of failing lines and manholes will be prioritized for repair. The primary areas identified include Animal Hill and all canyon-sloping areas where main sewer lines are exposed to the elements. The $15 million project is anticipated to be executed in four installments over two years. The initial area of concern is estimated to cost $3.5 million to rectify.
At the same time, the plant itself hasn’t seen any major replacements or improvements since the early 1990s. The plant’s chemical chlorine treatment facility needs an overhaul, with safety and monitoring devices installed. A new aerobic digester, twice the size of the current one, is required to replace the existing unit. New screens, filters, and pumps need to be acquired. The district’s vehicle fleet, now all over ten years old, should be replaced in a staggered manner over the next two years. There’s a need for a new dump truck and a new Bobcat. Numerous aging components must be serviced by staff to ensure an efficient operation.
Thankfully, the west side sewer additions will be fully operational within the next two months. Construction funds have been collected, and agreements have been established with all west-side owners and operators, except for Inspire Communities RV Park. Currently, the Sewer District is in litigation with Inspire RV Park, seeking a judicial resolution due to their persistent refusal to cover construction costs for Phases 1, 1A, and 2. These phases were annexed into the Sewer District upon the request of the park’s prior owner. Concurrently, a comprehensive agreement has been finalized with the Shuster Companies. They have committed to covering 100% of their construction fees for all their properties, which includes a provision in Phase 5 to escrow funds until after the bond vote is approved.
Good things have been happening at the District over the past few months. We’ve made significant strides in reducing ongoing operating costs, phasing out outdated and expensive-to-repair equipment, and restructuring job descriptions to better align with the performance goals and objectives set by the District Board.
On November 7, 2023, a special mail-in ballot vote is scheduled for all full-time residents of Munds Park. The voters are being asked to approve a special $15-million WIFA loan. This loan will fund the necessary repairs and facilitate the purchase of vital new plant components and equipment required for the repairs over the next two years. It’s crucial that everyone VOTES and endorses the bond request. This ensures that we can maintain the quality of life that a well-functioning sewer system affords our rural forest community.
Some local full-time residents question the need for this bond. They suggest the community should allow Coconino County to assume control of the operation and handle the state-mandated repairs. However, Matt Ryan, our current Board of Supervisor, along with other Coconino County officials who attended the Community Watch meeting on August 9th, emphasized that this would be a grave mistake. The pain and suffering Munds Park would endure with the restrictions imposed, the massive outlay of government funds, and the immediacy of repairs that would have to be made would be “very Painful,” as several county officials suggested at the meeting. Additionally, the learning curve for county officials would add months, if not years, to the project, increasing the overall expense and result in a significantly higher sewer bill to all Munds Park homeowners/taxpayers.
For those interested in learning more about the importance of this bond initiative, please plan to attend the next Pinewood Sanitary District Board meeting on September 28, 2023 at 3 pm at the District offices located at 18075 Fairway Drive.