Perhaps it's difficult to imagine folks getting sentimental about poop running downhill, but that's exactly what's happening for about 30,000 Boiseans.
A venerable anachronism - the Bench Sewer District - is shutting its 2,200 manhole covers and turning them over to the city of Boise on Dec. 1.
The district is going out with a wave of goodwill - disbursing its assets with $3.2 million in refund checks totaling a year's service fees, and offering a free final year of service.
"I was stunned," said Judy Austin, who used to stop by the Emerald Street office to pay her quarterly bill of $40.95. "I hate to see it go - one of the things I love about Boise is it still has some of the best stuff of a small town."
Retired after 35 years with the Idaho State Historical Society, Austin even sent an email. "I'll miss you," she wrote, thanking the district for the check and 40 years of service at her home on Hummel Drive.
Bench Sewer District board member Dave Tuthill - an engineer and former chief of the Idaho Department of Water Resources - said customers benefited from low rates thanks to a 50-year contract with the city to process its waste. In fiscal 2013, the district paid the city $1.8 million for wastewater treatment.
With the deal expiring, Bench Sewer explored hooking up to Meridian and building its own plant. While district customers' rates will rise with Boise charging the true costs of treatment, neither option penciled out.
"We were getting a good deal," Tuthill said. "Ultimately, we determined this was the best option. The city has good value when compared to other cities."
CATS ON THE COUNTER
In the 1950s, Bench homes had septic systems and wells. Founded in 1958 to cover a largely unincorporated 9 square miles, Bench Sewer was vital to public health and economic development. A $4.4 million bond financed 90 miles of main lines and 40 miles of service connections, built by Morrison-Knudsen in 19 months.
Western Construction magazine called it "one of the biggest sewer jobs ever let in a single piece," marveling at MK's handling a high water table associated with flood irrigation, 14 major canal crossings, narrow streets and a population of 23,000.
Most of the district's 11,560 accounts received rebate checks June 26. For residential customers, that's $163.80. About 1,000 commercial customers will get their refunds after IRS W-2's are completed. The biggest - $86,481 - goes to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.
On the check stub is a farewell from the district with seven employees and five board members: "It has been a pleasure to serve you and we are confident you will be in good hands with the city of Boise."
District Manager Michael Comeskey said the reaction has been positive, though some are skeptical about getting money back from the government.
"There's been a little disbelief that they were actually getting a check," Comeskey said. "We've had a lot of confirmation calls: 'Is this real? Can I actually cash this?' "
Boise City Engineer John Tensen helped negotiate the merger and understands the affection for the district.
"Some people really liked having an office on the Bench where you come in and pay your bill and there's a cat lying on the counter," Tensen said. "But it made sense."
FAIR BUT SAD
The district built a $7 million reserve for emergencies and the possibility of building a plant. To fully deplete the assets, customers may receive a credit against future billings.
Bench Sewer employees were offered comparable work with the city. Among those taking jobs are Comeskey and maintenance supervisor Doug Rhinehart, a 22-year employee.
On a recent day, Rhinehart used a huge card file to locate a line for a customer.
"It's so old and so good," he said. "Easy to use and accurate."
Another old-timer, board member Jack Woods, has lived in the district since 1958, when overflowing septic tanks meant a summer landscape of yards dotted with "sewage lakes."
"Lordy, we were getting our tanks pumped because they were full of irrigation water," said Woods, 84.
Woods owned Jack's Flowers on Orchard Street from 1974 to 1996 and gets sentimental about closing shop.
"It's sad to see it go away, but I know it's inevitable," Woods said
What will he miss most? Mom-and-pop service.
"Our maintenance crew is great," he said. "If there's a problem, it's taken care of today. I don't care if it's 10 o'clock at night - they're out fixing that line."
Woods said Bench pipes are "probably as good or better than a lot of the city's."
But Tensen, the city engineer, said Woods may be overly nostalgic about the concrete lines.
"For 50 years old, they're in reasonable shape," Tensen said. "We're not immediately inheriting a problem."
Eighty percent of the city's lines are less than 25 years old and made of more durable PVC. "Theirs are maintained well, but it's like a 10-year-old car vs. a brand-new car," Tensen said. "They both run well, but one of them won't last as long."
Boise agreed to phase in higher rates over five years, but Bench customers will eventually pay a full share of the cost of maintaining two treatment plants with a replacement cost estimated at $300 million to $400 million. They'll also help meet tougher standards, including phosphorus and temperature discharge levels under the U.S. Clean Water Act.
Tensen said there will be savings from economies of scale and called the agreement "fair and reasonable."
"My personal belief is it's best for the community in the long-run so we have a uniform system across the city," he said.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics