Plains finalizes wastewater project grant
March 4, 2021
The mayor of Plains announced at the monthly council meeting Monday that the town officially received its grant of $5,148,500 for the new wastewater treatment facility. Though they basically knew grant money was forthcoming, it wasn’t until Monday, only hours prior to the council meeting, that Mayor Dan Rowan and town attorney Richard Gebhardt completed the negotiations for the grant with FEMA and the Montana Department of Emergency Services to secure the funds.
“The FEMA grant in particular was very competitive and we were gratified to receive it. It underscores the fact that the need is urgent,” said Rowan, who added that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have noted that the town is in imminent danger of treatment failure, which “would lead to a complete shutdown of business, schools and hospital in Plains and inestimable damage to the downstream watershed.” Rowan said that it was the only major funded grant in FEMA’s Region 8, which includes Montana and five other states, and the only grant ever awarded in Montana by the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program.
“The Clark Fork River, year after year, is eroding the riverbank toward the current lagoons,” said Rowan in a press release. “I am very pleased that the funding package the town was able to put together for the sewer lagoon relocation means that there is a chance that sewer rates will not have to be raised again for the costs associated with this project,” Rowan said. The FEMA grant was one of six grants, but the largest one, the town received for the upcoming project. Morrison-Maierle Incorporated of Missoula is nearly done with the lagoon design and Rowan hopes to go out with bids prior to this year’s flood period. The purchase of the future lagoon property from Nick and Erika Lawyer and the easement property from the Stonebrook Trust are both pending eminent domain court decisions.
With the grant was the stipulation that the town is required to provide $625,000 for the project, which totals $6,805,000. The mayor and town council were able to obtain the remaining funds with the other grants. Rowan believes that because of all the grant money, subject to construction and acquisition costs, the current residential monthly base sewer rate of $26.81 should not have to be raised. However, he said that could change if the property acquisition costs exceed the appraised amounts, which will be determined in the eminent domain court decisions.
“One of the major criteria for award was the ability of the recipient to self-fund and to work with state and federal entities to coordinate, plan and execute a project of this size,” said Rowan. “Another factor, in review, was the magnitude of the economic loss to the community if the hospital, long care facility, schools and businesses were shuttered for lack of sewage treatment,” he added.
“The town initially believed it would be able to negotiate a purchase on terms agreeable to the landowners and the granting agencies,” said Rowan. “Unfortunately, the parties have been unable to agree on a purchase price. The grant funding agencies do not allow the town to pay substantially above the fair market value of the property.” The town initiated eminent domain proceedings in district court for the Lawyer property in January and for the Stonebrook easement on Friday in an effort to “acquire the property in exchange for payment of the fair market value.”
According to the press release, if the present lagoon was breached, the entire town would be impacted, including Clark Fork Valley Hospital, which could no longer accept patients and all existing patients would have to be moved to other facilities. Dr. Greg Hanson, the hospital’s CEO, estimated that more than a million dollars could be lost in salaries and costs in a one-month period, according to the news release. In addition, according to the FEMA formula, “over $7,000,000 in damages will be suffered by our community in that same period. The stakes are high for our community,” the mayor said. He also stated that the town’s choice for the new sewage treatment plant is extremely limited, pointing out that the site has to comply with the floodplain, the airport, and Department of Environmental Quality regulations. “This decision to litigate was not easily made. It is expensive, time consuming and creates hard feelings. Nevertheless, the risk to the town and its citizens makes it impossible to delay.”
At the council meeting, Rowan also said that there would be a scheduled conference with Judge Deborah "Kim" Christopher of the 20th Judicial District this week to go over the timetable of the proposed treatment plant and the need to quickly move the project along. He also said at the meeting that there have been “false and malicious statements” about the town and some of its members. “Let me state as forcefully as I can, no one that I am aware of that is working on this project has been deceitful or unethical in any fashion,” said Rowan. “Any charges to the contrary are vehemently denied.”