COEUR d'ALENE - Possible change of course.
The city of Coeur d'Alene is considering asking voters for approval for millions of dollars in upgrades for its wastewater treatment plant instead of getting the go-ahead from a judge because of one councilman's pledge to tie up the matter in court.
The City Council voted 4 to 2 Tuesday for staff to begin crafting what language on the ballot could look like if the city should send the issue to ballot in May.
A couple months ago, the city unanimously sought a judicial confirmation that would allow the city to spend at least $33 million in upgrades to the plant in light of stricter federal discharge requirements.
But Councilman Steve Adams - who voted in favor of the judicial confirmation - reversed his stance about a month ago and said he would appeal 1st District Judge John Luster's decision should Luster rule in favor of the city.
That appeal would likely tie up the matter in court, City Attorney Mike Gridley said, and hamstring the city when it comes to following the compliance schedule to which it agreed with several other agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Quality.
"Out of 44,000 people in Coeur d'Alene and one person has been able to string this out a year," Gridley said, of the position Adams took. "We thought this fit so squarely with the judicial confirmation process."
The city, along with other dischargers on the Spokane River, has about five years to implement upgrades to its facility that would tighten discharge levels into the river. If it doesn't meet those standards, it would face about $1 million in fines per month. It could also mean that the DEQ could forbid any new development from tapping into the wastewater treatment plant's services.
Those factors led the city to seek a judicial confirmation from Luster because the judge could rule they are ordinary and necessary improvements, thereby bypassing the requirement that the city get voter approval to take on the debt.
Now, with the appeal possibly looming, Gridley said Tuesday it would be prudent to prepare a possible ballot to put the matter to election so the city could skip the lengthy litigation process and still meet the compliance schedule.
"It angers me," said Woody McEvers, councilman, on the change of direction because of Adams' stance. "I want to vote no because it's bull, but I have to vote yes or we all go terribly down."
Kootenai County must be informed by April 5 if the city plans to have an election. Luster, who took the judicial confirmation under advisement, should rule by March 27. The city will vote April 2 if it will go for an election in May.
If it goes to ballot, it would need 50 percent plus one to pass.
Adams has said he favors giving voters the choice. His change in opinion caused a verbal dust up with Gridley during a meeting earlier this month, where Gridley swore at Adams. The two haven't seen eye to eye on the matter since, with Gridley saying he can't advise Adams on legal issues surrounding the matter should they arise since Adams sided against the rest of the council.
On Tuesday, Adams said he filed a complaint against Gridley to the Idaho Bar Association, and called DEQ threats resulting from non-compliance as speculation at this point, which prompted Wastewater Superintendent Sid Fredrickson to balk.
This "sky is falling rhetoric is speculative," Adams said.
"I have 40 years experience, councilman," Fredrickson said. "I have seen it."
Another option would have been to raise user rates 23.5 percent a year for the next five years to pay for improvements. That would take a $24 residential bill to $70 a month in 2017. Under the judicial confirmation, user rates would rise from $24 to about $35 in the same time frame, but the city would have decades to pay it back.
The city is moving forward amending its budget to possibly pay around $75,000 in costs related to the election.
McEvers and Councilman Mike Kennedy voted against exploring the ballot option.
This is "disheartening to contemplate why this is happening," Kennedy said.