An overwhelming majority of city voters approved a $68 million bond question on Tuesday to allow the city to remodel the Santa Rita Park sewer plant.
Early returns showed 2,640 voters or 67.59 percent said “yes” on the ballot issue, while 1,266 voters or 32.41 percent voted “no.”
“It truly is the right decision,” said Mayor Dean Brookie.
The remodel is necessary to ensure the plant can continue to meet water-quality regulations, as Durango continues to grow.
At the beginning of 2016, the city can now hire a company to design the sewer plant’s remodel, which will take about a year. Construction of the $58 million project will take about 18 months, said Mary Beth Miles, assistant to the city manager. The project needs to be finished to meet the Feb. 28, 2018, deadline when the state will review the plant’s permit.
The other $10 million in debt, approved by voters, will be used for sewer-related projects, not necessarily at the plant.
Without voter approval to finance the plant, the city would have had to look at emergency rate increases and cash financing the project, city councilors said.
“(The vote) averted a significant potential additional increase in sewer rates that would have been required to make interim improvements to the plant,” Brookie said.
However, opponents to the bond issue accused city officials of using scare tactics to pass the vote. The opposition sought to turn the ballot question into a referendum on the plant’s location because the group felt the council and city officials did not look hard enough to find an alternative location to build a new plant.
Even in the face of the bond question’s approval, the opposition group hopes discussion can continue around rebuilding the sewer plant at a different location, according to a written statement.
“The bond did not specify Santa Rita as the chosen site. We believe there is still an opportunity for city officials to re-evaluate their position, study alternative sites, and work openly with the public to achieve the goal of relocating the plant to a better site,” the statement said.
The opposition group that pushed for a “no” vote hopes the council will revisit the alternative locations, including Cundiff Park, a site near Sawmill Road Site or combine with the South Durango Sanitation District, said Jon Broholm, who helped organize the opposition.
However, the group has not come to a consensus on which site would be best, he said.
The city council has already spent about $100,000 on engineering studies to research moving the plant and found insurmountable technical, environmental and financial challenges, Brookie said.
In addition, the few acres of park land that could be gained by moving the plant would cost more than all the open space purchased by the city over 20 years.
“What could go there that’s worth costing the taxpayers $20 million?” Brookie asked.
The city studied alternative sites, including one near La Posta Road, one near the La Plata County jail and one near Sawmill Road.
Buying land and transporting the sewage to La Posta Road or the La Plata County jail would have added tens of millions to the cost of either project.
This reasoning resonated with voter Robby Robison who turned in his ballot late Tuesday.
“I think the other options are too costly at this point,” he said.
Neighbors objected strongly to the Sawmill Road site, and it would not have allowed for growth, a consultant for the city found.
Objections from neighbors at other potential sites also influenced Robison’s vote.
“It’s going to impact somebody, no matter where they put it,” he said.
Moving the plant would have also forced the city to either abandon about $10 million in usable infrastructure or leave some infrastructure in the park.
Improvements to the plant are underway to make sure it does not violate water-quality standards, said Steve Salka, utilities director.
Construction on a basin at the park that separates sludge from water was finished last week for less than the estimated $500,000, he said.
He also needs to build new aeration basins for about $5 million to meet the state’s standards for ammonia, a chemical that is toxic to fish.
If the construction was not completed by 2018, the city could potentially violate its permit every day, he said.
Yes: 67.59%, 2,640
No: 32.41%, 1,266