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Water treatment plant no time for legacy, let the people have a choice E-mail
Opinion
Thursday, 10 August 2017 09:00


OUR OPINION, L&T staff



For years, the City of Liberal has known that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has mandated a replacement of the city’s water treatment plant.

At Tuesday’s commission meeting, we learned that a plan for a Liberal-only plant was put on hold with about 85 percent of the engineering complete while an alternative plan for a joint water treatment plant between the City of Liberal and National Beef is being explored, with National Beef providing a separate plan to the KDHE at its own expense.

For National Beef to provide a plan to the KDHE, the City had to provide approval, and this happened with a memorandum of understanding that was not discussed at a commission meeting nor approved by the whole of the commission but simply with the signature of one commissioner acting with the support of city management — Dave Harrison.

While the memorandum is non-binding, it is troublesome. It is quite likely that the request would have received support of the commission, but the determination that such support was unnecessary simply because the City was not obligated financially does not provide the public confidence in the process, nor does it provide transparency for the residents who will be paying for the water treatment plant with higher water bills.

Working with National Beef might be a great plan, or working separate might be the better way to go.

The public simply has not been given enough information to know, and it seems that the commission believes they alone are the only people that need to know and will make the decision for all of us.

There are a number of reasons why this is not wise.

Several years ago, the City had a plan for a recreational center that would cost about $8 million. The commission had the authority to pass the plan, but they allowed the public to vote on the proposal, and the community rejected the City’s plan.

Now, there is a chance to get a recreation center at a much lower cost by working with the school district with the South Middle School facility.

In the end, the voters will be rewarded for the patience to do the project with more people involved in the planning.

A water treatment plant could cost anywhere from $18 million to $56 million or higher.

At this point, we simply do not know.

We also do not know who suggested that estimate. Is it the same staff members who said that we could build softball fields for $850,000 and ended up spending $1.7 million? What guarantees will the residents have on just how much a new water treatment plant will cost?

We did learn that National Beef would be willing to pay for 70 percent of a joint plant. What about the labor to operate the plant? Will National Beef be providing 70 percent of the labor, 70 percent of repair and upgrade costs, or 70 percent of any fines that may be levied down the road for any misuse? We need to be clear on just what 70 percent means for the long haul, not just for the construction.

It would also seem appropriate for the City to complete the remaining 15 percent on the city-only option, and when both plans are complete, allow a public vote on which the community prefers.

This commission has shown that when it acts unilaterally or with its own counsel, the costs have been higher, agreements have not been thoroughly read to live up to contractual obligations, and the City has opted to confront other governmental agencies rather than follow the commitments made.

We cannot afford to get into a similar battle with the KDHE or increase the public risk both in health and finances with another “deal” made by a commission that believes it can make the best decision when the public knows less.

To this point, there have been no public hearings on any specific proposal, and that is fair since none have been made.

But public discussions must occur, and a public vote should be planned before any commitments of such a large scale are to be made that will obligate the residents with higher water bills for decades to come.

While those that come to the end of their public service may seek a project that can be a feather in their cap or a legacy item, the water treatment plant should not be on that list.

This has serious, long-term consequences, and there is no way to attempt to subvert the public with private discussions, memos of understanding that do not come before the whole commission and unilateral commitments without a properly informed public.

The role of the commission is not to dictate to the public but to represent the public, to get input and to provide options.

This issue should not be rushed through in the twilight moments of a lame duck commission, and any deadlines with the KDHE should be extended so the people who will be paying for the plant have a chance to know which plan they prefer, how much it will cost with contractor guarantees, and how their bills will be affected. 

This should be a choice of the people.

 

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The High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times are published Sunday through Friday and reaches homes throughout the Liberal, Kansas retail trade zone. The Leader & Times is the official newspaper of Seward County, USD No. 480, USD No. 483 and the cities of Liberal and Kismet.  The Leader & Times is a member of the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Press Association and the Associated Press.

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