An on-site wastewater treatment plant on West Lowndes campus property could be replaced with a system that treats sewage off-site if Lowndes County School District agrees to a $122,000 up-front investment to join Prairie Land Water Association's sewer system now under construction. Now, the on-site, open-air plant treats the wastewater to Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality standards and discharges it directly into a nearby stream. Joining Prairie Land would allow the campus' wastewater to be piped to a treatment plant at Lowndes County Industrial Park, eliminating LCSD's upkeep and wastewater testing costs. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
March 10, 2020 10:15:00 AM
Lowndes County School District's board members are still weighing whether to turn over wastewater treatment at its West Lowndes facilities to Prairie Land Water Association.
On Friday, though, the question seemed to be more of "when" than "if."
For the second time in three weeks, LCSD board members heard from Joey Henderson of JBHM Architects about an estimated $122,000 project to move away from treating its own wastewater on-site at the West Lowndes campus and instead tying to a Prairie Land sewer system now under construction.
But Superintendent Sam Allison, who took the helm in January, said he needs at least another month to review the district's finances and determine if he can recommend the expenditure.
"It's something we need to do," Allison told the board. "If we had $122,000 sitting there, I'd say let's do it now."
The existing system at West Lowndes, which operates with a Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality permit, consists of grinder pumps moving sewage to an open-air treatment plant on-site. After the water is treated, it's discharged into a nearby stream, said district maintenance supervisor Greg Wheat.
LCSD pays a little more than $18,000 per year to maintain that system, Wheat said. That total includes equipment maintenance, domestic water usage and the cost for third-party consultants to monitor the system's discharge levels and report them to MDEQ. Prairie Land already provides domestic water service to LCSD.
Tying to Prairie Land's sewer system would replace the treatment plant with three enclosed wet wells on school property that would grind and pump sewage to a treatment plant at the Lowndes County Industrial Park, Wheat said, eliminating the need for consultants and MDEQ reporting.
Henderson said converting the system to Prairie Land would cost roughly $107,000 for new pumps and the wet wells. The additional $15,000 would cover getting rid of the on-site treatment plant and installing separate meters specifically for wastewater, which is charged at a higher rate per thousand gallons ($11.25) than irrigation/domestic water ($8.85), he said.
Once the system is converted, LCSD's total bill to Prairie Land would increase from about $885 per month on average for just water service to about $1,400 per month for water and sewer -- which would be about $16,800 in annual costs.
"When you look at what they're paying now ($18,000 annually), the annual costs for changing over would be about a wash," Henderson said. "The real difference is the up-front cost."
Prairie Land is in the second of a two-phase construction project to lay sewer service infrastructure along the Frontage Road beside Highway 82 west of Columbus -- a project water association general manager Daniel Rayfield said will run from the Golden Triangle Regional Airport exit to the Macon/Meridian exit. Rayfield said 300 customers in that corridor, mostly commercial and industrial, have already committed to tying in to Prairie Land service once construction is complete by year's end.
Cash on-hand is a 'trick question'
LCSD has considered the prospect of "getting out of the sewer business" for several years, but when Henderson brought them Prairie Land's price during a recess meeting Feb. 18, board members discussed waiting and including the project in the budget for Fiscal Year 2021, which begins July 1. At Friday's meeting, Allison and a few board members acknowledged joining Prairie Land is an ideal long-term move, but they noted the existing system at West Lowndes is working fine.
But Henderson warned that if LCSD did not commit soon, there may not be capacity later. Even if there is, he said, the school district can likely never join Prairie Land for cheaper than it can now.
"If you wait, (Prairie Land) might not have capacity, whereas you're guaranteed capacity now," Henderson said. "If and when the (existing) system does fail, it will cost more than this $122,000 (to tie to Prairie Land later)."
To that, board member Brian Clark asked Allison, "Do we have the money?"
Allison responded, "That's a trick question."
Deficit spending has been an issue for LCSD since at least 2014, with the operating fund balance dropping from a high of $17 million to just more than $4 million by 2019. On top of that, the district has borrowed millions in tax anticipation notes to make December payroll the last two school years because operating funds had depleted to the negative.
Property tax collections in the spring are supposed to repay those notes and replenish the operating fund balance.
In the wake of the tax-anticipation borrowing in December 2019 and an auditor's report in February that showed deficiencies in LCSD's financial documentation practices, Allison told the board the district is working with third-party consultants to help determine its financial position.
What those consultants determine could impact how LCSD moves forward with the sewer project.
"Our intent is to do the project," Clark told Henderson on Friday. "But if Sam comes back and tells us we don't have the money, (that may change)."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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