COBURG -aTo hear City Manager Don Schuessler tell it, this town's future is linked to its toilets.
More specifically, to what happens once toilets are flushed. Coburg's status as one of the largest municipalities in Oregon without a sewer system puts a chokehold on its ability to grow. And, in a state with no sales tax, adding more assessable properties to the rolls is the only way to keep up with costs.
But Coburg's attempt to wean itself from the septic tanks that threaten groundwater and seal off growth potential is fraught with obstacles, skyrocketing costs and controversy, leaving the city balancing on a precarious political tightrope.
City officials have been reluctant to heap the balance of a $25 million sewage treatment plant on the backs of people who already live in Coburg. Instead, they want to pin payments to future development, but based on growth rates that rarely have been realized here. City officials also are backing away from another component of the funding plan, which was to charge landowners on the east side of the city five times as much for initial assessments as those who live on the west side.
"I think it stinks," said Nancy Cheffings, a resident at the Premier RV Resort in Coburg, one of the properties on the east side. Cheffings is afraid the park's owner will raise her monthly rates so much to pay sewer bills that she'll be forced to move out. "I don't know where I'd go. We're going to end up having to leave the area, or if worse comes to worst, we'll be parking on the street."
Coburg has flirted with the idea of switching to a sewer system for decades. In the 1970s, the town turned away an offer to join the wastewater system that serves Eugene and Springfield, wary of foregoing its "independence," Schuessler said.
In the early 1990s, Coburg could have built a sewer system for anywhere between $3 million and $7 million - with the aid of considerable federal funding. The city rejected that, too.
Now the town is in a pickle. Septic tanks require separate drain fields. Towns without sewers face stringent restrictions on subdividing lots, which means there's nowhere to put new housing developments in Coburg now. Effectively, there's a moratorium on growth, and last year the population shrank, which means schools suffer declining enrollment and face closure, and the local government's pot of money to pay for increasingly expensive city services stays the same size, or shrinks.
That's why the City Council began reconsidering a sewer system several years ago. The biggest initial problem, other than cost, was where to dump the outfall. Joining Eugene's system was immediately deemed the most expensive option available, the nearby McKenzie River presented threats to salmon, and other environmental issues rule out the more distant Willamette River, which would have required snaking pipes through a nature preserve.
In 2006, the city decided to pursue what's known as a septic tank effluent pumped, or STEP, wastewater collection system. It is a high-tech setup complete with a membrane bioreactor treatment system that is now estimated to cost $25 million and require old septic tanks to be replaced with newer, fancier models.
A STEP system would allow Coburg to release treated wastewater into Muddy Creek, a tiny waterway north of town. But the project cost, and the options so far for paying for it, have residents in a full-fledged uproar.
Stan Shattuck called The Register-Guard newsroom last week, threatening to revolt.
"There's a revolution in Coburg!" Shattuck shouted into the phone. "We're gonna tar and feather the City Council!"
Shattuck may not have meant it literally, but that sentiment is flowing through town at the moment. A group of citizens is meeting to strategize in advance of a Tuesday City Council session. Council members will consider a sewer ordinance that would allow Coburg to charge residents a $58 monthly "capital construction fee" beginning in January, long before the sewer system is actually built.
"It's like prepaying your mortgage," Schuessler said.
Terry McMullen faces some of the most dire consequences if the city can't figure out a way to cut costs drastically. He owns the Premier RV Resort, which is on the east side of the freeway and thus subject to a 15 cents-per-square-foot assessment rate. Everyone on the other side of the freeway pays 3 cents per square foot.
"They seem to think we've got this vat full of money hiding someplace," McMullen said. "That we're going to pull out a wad of cash and hand it to them, and that's just not the case."
Thing is, McMullen isn't on septic. He has his own sewage treatment plant, for which he already pays $3,000 a month. All of the other landowners on the east side of I-5 also use that plant to treat their own waste. They're not on septic either.
Under the city's plan, McMullen would pay $3,000 per month to have his sewage treated at the plant on his property. But he also would pay an estimated $10,000 in monthly fees to join Coburg's system, because each of McMullen's 152 RV spaces will come with its own price tag of between $60 and $70 a month.
"I can't make another $120,000 a year," McMullen said. "It's just impossible."
The city says it's looking for a way to balance out the charges it will assess on both sides of the freeway. But that means residents in the rest of the town will get hit with a bill that already has surged from nothing - the price they pay to use their current septic tanks - to $55.
"That's hard for people to look at when they're not paying anything right now," Schuessler said.
To ratchet those costs down, city officials had hoped to pay for a significant part of the plant with "systems development charges," which are assessed on new subdivisions when they're built.
"We wanted to put the payback on growth," said city Finance Director Craig Gibons.
But in order for that money to be realized, the growth has to actually occur.
Initial funding plans anticipated growth rates of 6 percent annually, a number this town has hit only once in the past decade. Gibons says the estimate is based on other towns with sewer systems, because their growth isn't as limited. But Portland State University's latest population estimates for Lane County towns indicate that 6 percent is a lofty goal.
Between 2006 and 2007, Coburg's population actually dropped by 0.5 percent. Cottage Grove grew less than a percentage point; Creswell and Junction City grew 3 percent and Lowell surged 4 percent. The only city to top a 6 percent growth rate was Veneta, which jumped 9.4 percent. But that was its highest total since 2001.
"People aren't building houses like they have," Schuessler said. "The financial plan was based on some high growth rates."
Dropping the anticipated growth rate to a more realistic 3 percent a year means higher monthly bills for residents: $85, instead of $55.
There is some good news buried in all of these financial twists and turns, but it comes with its own catch. About 30 percent of the city's funding comes from federal and state government grants, which officials say is a high proportion for projects such as this. And because the economy is still anemic, especially in the building sector, city officials say they expect to save money on construction costs.
But that climate won't exist indefinitely, and grants don't sit on shelves, which is why postponing the project in favor of a better economy or a revamped payment plan or a redesigned sewer system is a poor option, Schuessler said.
"If we put this off, that money won't be available," he said.
McMullen insists there has to be a better way.
"What they've got is an extremely high-end, intricate system that costs a ton of money," said McMullen, who argues the council is giving too much credence to the recommendations of engineers who stand to benefit from a higher project cost, because it means more work for them. "We feel there's got to be something less expensive."