At the Wilmette Village Board meeting on November 27, we were served up a huge helping of charts and graphs, along with maps on westside storm sewer improvement projects.
Billed as a financial review, the meeting nonetheless included another engineering review of the options (as covered in this meeting packet.)
In fact, the one big complaint from several members of the public was–enough with the analysis already, it’s time for the board to act!
Taking that input to heart, the board did move slightly in the direction of action, when they took turns sharing their current thinking at the end of the meeting, which finished at midnight.
Options on the Table
The options, and their 10-year storm results, are as follows:
1) Relief Sewer (including a main trunk and network of pipes, $80M-$95M)
2) Reduced Relief Sewer + Neighborhood Storage ($70M-$80M)
3) Reduced Relief Sewer ($55M-$65M)
UPDATE: This option was eliminated at the December 12 Storm Sewer meeting.
4) Neighborhood Storage ($48M-$55M)
Option 1 Relief Sewers: Still My Preferred Project
After hearing everything, I’m still convinced that we should strive for 10-year storm protection for the entire village, not just the eastside. And I still support Option 1 Relief Sewers as the most cost-effective way to implement that standard throughout the entire westside.
Although some board members started calling it the “100 million dollar project,” it actually has been thoroughly studied and given a low end of $66M. Even with contingencies, Option 1 could end up being the same price as the second option: Reduced Relief Sewer + Neighborhood Storage. So in comparison, it seems unfair to leave neighborhoods out, if that might not even save any money.
Option 1 also takes full advantage of the existing pump station and outlet on the North Branch of the Chicago River. This is a much cheaper and more convenient solution than the eastside relief sewer, which required a $60M tunnel for conveyance to a reservoir (as part of the TARP system paid for by MWRD).
As you can see on the next Stantec Cost/Benefit chart, in terms of 10-year storm protection, Option 1 successfully leverages the existing pump station and outflow to produce a competitive return on investment:
In addition, Option 1 has a chance of getting some funding for the main storm trunk (pipe), if the village can submit a proposal to the MWRD by February 16, 2018. In the past, MWRD has helped with a little funding for about 50 percent of proposals, and I believe any additional funding could be a benefit.
Option 1 could also realize cost savings by combining the new storm sewer upgrade with roadway construction and water main replacement. The roads must be dug up for those projects anyway, so why not work on the storm sewers at the same time, wherever possible? And Option 1 replaces some old storm sewer pipe with new large pipe, thus eliminating some of the maintenance costs for the legacy system.
Finally, when completed, the Option 1 Relief Sewers would reduce stormwater infiltration of the sanitary system, mitigating a problem that is currently contributing to sewage backups. (But this and other savings and benefits for Option 1 have not been researched in-depth because the board has not authorized it.)
Wilmette Finance Director Melinda Molloy did a thorough job of reviewing Wilmette’s excellent financial situation. Moody has given the village AAA ratings. A takeaway for me is that some of the remaining debt from the ’90s eastside relief sewer and other capital improvements will be retiring in the next few years, making new debt more feasible.
If the village funded Option 1 using sewer fees, and took out 30-year loans using General Obligation Debt, then by 2047 (just before the debt is retired), residents would see a maximum $514 increase in average annual sewer fees. This estimate is based on a high-end project cost of $95M, but nonetheless would not likely change our AAA rating. (Village staff presented the most conservative scenarios possible, which is good, but keep in mind the low estimate for Option 1 is $66M, plus 20% contingency for unforeseen issues.)
Storm Utility Fees
Storm utility fees were considered as another option for funding a project, with both the finance director and Trustee Julie Wolf sharing their research.
On the plus side:
- Storm utility fees are based on impervious property area.
- Storm utility fees are already being implemented in multiple communities, so we could “copycat” solutions.
- The fees highlight stormwater issues, and rebates could encourage smart stormwater management practices (e.g., for rain barrels, rain gardens, or smaller footprints).
On the minus side:
- We can only borrow money based on a steady revenue stream, so any fees would have to be fully implemented and predictable to use for the project.
- The fees would probably require months to implement in a predictable fashion.
- One solution might be to fund capital projects from the existing sewer fee, and use the stormwater utility fees for other sewer expenses.
There was very little new information. The main maps are still the ones issued as part of the value study, and shown above.
The goal on the part of board members seemed to be to explore the flooding impact for some “left behind” neighborhoods for options 2, 3, and 4.
One concept that’s hard to grasp is the role of neighborhood storage during back-to-back or long storms. The storage ponds are only helpful until they’re full. After that, it’s as if there were no relief system, until the ponds drain, which takes considerable time. Also, the only cheap neighborhood storage is above ground, but that involves deep digging and major landscape changes.
About 25 to 30 members of the public attended. Residents implored the board to act on Option 1, Option 2, or simply to act soon!
We heard from one resident about what it’s like when a storm arrives, the power goes out, and the sump pump backup battery can only last a limited amount of time. In cases like that, the duration of flooding is enormously important. We heard from a neighbor who had to fly home to deal with a flooded home and damaged cars. Someone called for a moratorium on village development, since there isn’t adequate infrastructure to support it. Several noted that the current low interest rates make now a good time for infrastructure projects. There was also a lot of general frustration regarding flooding.
The general sentiment was basically: Do something! We need some relief!
Trustees Shared Initial Thoughts
The public mostly left by 11:30PM, but the trustees decided to share their current thoughts.
In the interest of getting this posted, I’m going to paraphrase what I heard. (I welcome feedback to polish up the details.)
First, let me just say the biggest laugh of the night was when Trustee Senta Plunkett commented (only half-joking) that she was afraid Wilmette residents would be shocked if (after years of meetings and discussions and studies) the board actually decided to do something.
Here’s my impression of the “initial thoughts” of the board members:
- Kathy Dodd: The feedback from the community is that the board needs to make a decision. She is most concerned about flooding in people’s houses, not streets. She feels every plan leaves out some homes, but they would have to pay too much for only 50 additional homes, so she is leaning toward Relief Sewer + Neighborhood Storage. She believes that sometime later they can add conveyance (pipes) to storage, or storage to conveyance. She also said they should address 10-year storms.
- Stephen M. Leonard: He is concerned about what they were not doing, which is not protecting from 100-year storms (because the cost is double 10-year protection), and not protecting for changes due to climate change. He feels that 10 years from now, he won’t know what to say if a 25-year storm comes and a resident says “my basement is still wet.” So he does not think the current options are good, mostly because they are too costly, but also they do not resolve all flooding from all storms. He does not have a final decision.
- Julie Wolf: She said that when she first got the project cost estimates, they didn’t like the numbers, but three years and several studies later, they still are in the same place. She likes the idea of building a part of something, and leaving it to add onto later. She thinks climate change is definitely here. Also, we’re in an old community and can’t have everything perfect (for example, her house has a detached garage). She is still undecided.
- Senta Plunkett: She thinks improving infrastructure is a good investment. She hasn’t decided, but believes that the Relief Sewer + Neighborhood Storage is a good choice because she thinks the Kenilworth neighborhood would be impacted faster with this project, and it does improve 11 of 14 severely flooding areas.
- Joel Kurzman: Strongly supports Option 1 Relief Sewers. He believes that 10-year storm protection should be the standard for all of Wilmette. He would prefer to set a policy, rather than pick “winners and losers.” He believes in looking for a good long-term investment. He also spoke about the current costs of flooding for village residents (e.g., flood insurance, sump pumps, backup batteries, etc.), which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per year. For that reason, the max. ~$500/year annual fee to pay off debt for the project does not sound excessive.
- Daniel E. Sullivan, Jr.: He thinks any of the projects will provide only an incremental benefit. He does not believe it’s fair to the community to ask them to pay fees for 10-year storm protection on the westside. He thinks this fee will make it much more expensive to live in Wilmette. He might lean toward Option 4 Neighborhood Storage.
- Bob Bielinski: He said that any money we spend will make it better. He thinks Option 1 will never be built because it costs too much. He said that another community of people, who were not at the meeting, will be opposed to Option 1, and vote the board “out” in the next election, if they try to build it. He said that it seemed like $30M was a lot of money to make a couple of flood areas disappear. He said that he’s thinking on the low end. President Bielinski also repeatedly said that he hoped the board would be granted space to share their initial thoughts without being attacked.
Trustee Dodd finished the meeting with an anecdote about the Wilmette Metra train tracks. Years ago, Wilmette trustees decided it would “cost too much” if they paid to raise the tracks and create an overpass in the middle of the village. The project would have allowed cars free passage under the Metra, and improved pedestrian and auto safety. Other communities, including Evanston and Winnetka, borrowed and found grants to pay for the train overpasses.
Now, sometimes while waiting for the train, she wonders what Wilmette residents in 50 years will think about this board’s decision on storm sewers… (a decision which may happen at the next meeting, or a meeting after that, in 2017, or 2018……)
Keeping in the civic-minded spirit of the meeting, let’s aim for persuasive, but civil discourse.