Flowing downhill: Bench Sewer District merging with Boise

After 56 years, Idaho's largest independent district calls it quits

dpopkey@idahostatesman.com © 2014 Idaho StatesmanJuly 8, 2014 

  • Boise Sewer District history

    In 1954, Boise's Bench Boosters advocated a sewer system to ship waste from about 14,000 people living in the mostly unincorporated Bench to the city-owned sewage plant built in 1948-49.

    Four years later, the population had reached 23,000 and the new Bench Sewer District made its pitch to voters for a $4.4 million bond.

    About 1.5 million gallons of sewage entered septic tanks and cesspools daily, making the area the largest in the Northwest without a sanitary sewer. Groundwater contamination "could easily spread such diseases as typhoid, dysentery and polio," said a district flier.

    In August 1958, voters approved the bond. Morrison-Knudsen began work in November 1959, finishing in June 1961.

    Bench Sewer isn't the first such district in Ada County to merge with the city.

    In February, Northwest Boise Sewer District shifted about 5,000 customers to Boise in the Foothills, North End and Collister neighborhoods. With $900,000 in assets remaining, the district plans to mail residential customers checks of about $169 this month, said James Hovren, the district's attorney.

    In 2006, the Owyhee Sewer District, with about 1,000 customers south of town, asked to be absorbed by Boise after trouble with lagoons.

    The West Boise Sewer District, running north to south along Cole Road north of Interstate 84 to Chinden Boulevard, has about 6,500 customers. Its 50-year treatment contract with the city expires in 2024, when a merger is likely.

    The Eagle Sewer District sends partially treated waste to Boise. The initial contract expires in 2023, with automatic 10-year renewals. The city of Garden City pays Boise to treat its waste. The contract is indefinite, subject to termination by either party with five years' written notice.

    City Engineer John Tensen said the Eagle and Garden City contracts will likely continue because they cover customers outside Boise city limits.

  • Sewer rates

    The flat fee of $13.65 a month paid by Bench Sewer District customers is considerably lower than the $24 paid by the average Boise household.

    But the figure doesn't reflect the true costs of operating and maintaining the city's West Boise and Lander Street treatment plants, in part because the expiring contract provides for rate increases only after improvements are operational.

    Boise's rates are based on four months of average winter-water consumption, with a base rate of $5.30 plus $3.01 per 100 cubic feet. That compares favorably with rates in nearby cities.

    Monthly charges, based on consumption of 658 cubic feet of water:

    Boise: $23.93

    Nampa: $25.90

    Caldwell: $28.57

    Eagle Sewer District: $30 (flat rate)

    Meridian: $35.63

    Garden City: $36.19

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."

MODERN UNIFORMITY

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

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