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Public Hearing Draws Angry Outcry for Wastewater Plant Repair Plan

Lewiston resident Jim Kluss holds up his water bill to demonstrate rising costs. He says more increases to fund wastewater plant repairs will mean an unmanageable hit to many peoples' wallets.

A handful of Lewiston residents got up and, often angrily, spoke against how the city plans to fund repairs to the wastewater treatment plant. That process, called judicial confirmation, allows a judge to make the decision to issue debt, in this case $28 million. They let Lewiston city councilors know they don't want the decision to bypass the voters.

"Immediate and necessary." That's how planned repairs to Lewiston's wastewater treatment plant are described, three different times, in a press release issued ahead of Monday's public hearing. That had some people, including Mark Edelblute, asking: "Why do we have to wait until the damn thing's falling down?"

A 260-page wastewater master plan was adopted in November 2016, highlighting several projects needed to keep the plant in compliance and running efficiently.

"February of 2018, we hired our financial advisor because we didn't know how we were going to pay for this, so the process is going out for a bond because we don't have the money on hand," public works director Chris Davies says.

The plan is to fund the repairs with a 40% increase in water and sewer rates - a revenue bond that would pay off a $28 million debt issuance. That upset some, especially following the passage of the bond to build Lewiston's new high school.

Resident Jim Kluss says, "A high school bond, followed quickly with this kind of a bond, makes a truly significant monthly dollar impact on people."

The decision to issue the debt would come down to a judge, in a process called judicial confirmation. Many asked why, if the city and council knew two years ago about the problem, they start saving up. "You knew this issue was coming up and yet Mr. Davies wants to bypass the voters altogether by sitting on it for the last two years," one man claimed. He went on to address Councilor Bob Blakey, referencing a meeting they had two years ago regarding the wastewater plant issues. "And I told you back then in 2016, Bob. This is crap. And the chickens are coming home to roost."

Those who gave testimony didn't just want a voice - they want a vote. Resident Brian Hensley says, "I think you should put it to the voters instead of allowing some judge to make the decision."

While councilors couldn't really comment during the public hearing, though many taking the mic asked them to answer questions on the spot, some did respond at the end of the meeting.

Bob Blakey explained squirrelling away money for several years wasn't feasible, using a "brown envelope" analogy. "No city can afford to do that. So even though I think it sounds good, it's impossible." He went on to explain that their "investment into Lewiston's future" can be likened to corporate America. "You build your business, you reinvest your cash flow into your cities when you have the money. Then when you need an acquisition or you need to improve your business, that's when you go to the public and you float a corporate bond. You use the revenue from expansion to pay off the debt. That's what we're doing."

Mayor Mike Collins thanked the public for their statements, which he says will be used to assess council's decision. However by that time, many of those wanting answers had already left.

The city council will decide whether to move forward with the judicial confirmation at their June 25th meeting. If the council approves it, a judge will then decide if those repairs are pressing enough to issue the debt. Appeals to the judge's approval, if issued, can be made for up to 42 days.

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