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Sewer rates to go up again in Ellsworth as sewer plant renovation project bid over budget

The low bid for the Ellsworth village sewer plant renovation project came in $970,000 over what was budgeted. Thus, the village board felt it had no choice but to unanimously approve another quarterly sewer rate increase at its monthly meeting Monday evening.

This rate increase was approved by the board just a month after the initial increase was adopted, also unanimously, to secure a state loan to begin construction.

The board unanimously approved the bid of $3,336,700 from Rice Lake Builders. The bid was more than the estimated cost of $2,446.694 because of increased prices for oil, concrete, copper and steel. The initial cost estimate was made in September of last year but the bid was made on March 23 and during this time there's been turmoil in the Middle East, a further weakening in the U.S. dollar and the earthquake and tidal wave in Japan. All of these things have forced up prices for commodities and construction material prices since then and thus construction costs were more than expected.

The new rate approved by the board will now charge will be $104.98 quarterly for an average user, about a $35 per month charge, and $194.39 for an average commercial user. However, figures show this still puts Ellsworth well below the rates other nearby communities charge for quarterly sewer costs. In Hammond, for example, the rate is a whopping $331.40 per quarter. In Dresser it's $266.69. In Pierce County alone, only Bay City has a lower rate at $87.20 per quarter. For other communities its $125.12 in Spring Valley, $129 in Plum City, $141.56 in Maiden Rock; $140.63 in River Falls, $126.02 in Prescott and $127.13 in Elmwood.

The cheapest quarterly sewer rate from Buffalo all the way to Polk County and in between is Glenwood City at $62.50.

Board members complained about how the DNR has put them into a no-win situation. The village is already not in compliance with state standards for discharge. Doing nothing in order to defy the DNR will cost the village $10,000 per day in fines along with a zero-growth penalty forbidding any new hook-ups to the village sewer system to ultimately having the DNR design and build a new sewer plant by itself and forcing the village to pay for it. The village is also required by the terms of the loan with the state to spend the money it has received for the project.

"They're running the process here and there's not much we can do about it." village president Gerald DeWolfe said. "They keep changing and changing the standards and our plant has only gotten older and older and now we've run out of room."

Board members discussed possibly removing some of the planned structures at the plant to reduce costs and Cedar Corp. and Foth engineering firms, who both helped put together the initial estimate for the project, listed areas of savings which board could possibly take up in change orders with Rice Lake Builders. However, DeWolfe warned the DNR would ultimately force the village to build such structures in the future in order to bring the village into compliance with state standards, which would be costly and not save any money in the long run. Nor would rebidding the project reduce costs since the prices of such materials are only forecasted to increase throughout the year.

Board members did discuss the idea of increasing revenue to the sewer plant and alleviating the quarterly sewer rate increase by hauling in waste to the village to be treated at the plant. The increased capacity at the plant with the renovation makes this a possibility.

Village public works director Greg Engeset said the one silver lining in this situation is the interest rate for the state loan remains the same.

"We're getting the same rate for $3.1 million plant as we would have for a $2.4 million plant."