BSCWSD financial officer Terry Smith and AE2S project manager Scott Buecker are questioned by the Resort Tax board regarding the wastewater treatment plant expansion. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

The sewer struggle is real

Big Sky County Water and Sewer District and Resort Tax team up to find a path forward

Big Sky County Water and Sewer District (BSCWSD) and Big Sky Resort Area Tax District (Resort Tax) have formally embraced a spirit of collaboration to face one of Big Sky’s more pressing issues. 

“We have more stuff on top of the table than this community has ever really faced at one time,” Resort Tax vice chair Steve Johnson said as he addressed the BSCWSD board. 

At last check, Big Sky was only 52% built-out and the BSCWSD meeting on Oct. 15 produced the information that the district has only 800 SFEs to dish out before treatment capacity is reached. SFEs are single family equivalents or the projected water use by a typical nuclear family and function as a way for water and sewer districts to ensure development does not outpace water treatment capacity. 

Any new construction has to get approval for the SFEs that will be used. An increasingly hot commodity – the board has been flying through them, typically releasing 200 at a time. Now, with the development surge, they released double at the recent meeting – a unanimous board decision after board vice president Tom Reeves made the motion and board member Mike DuCuennois seconded. 

The end of SFEs would equal the end of new construction – hammers halted, and developers waiting until the plant is expanded. Dwindling SFEs show that the wastewater treatment plant nears capacity, further driving the need for BSCWSD to iron-out funding mechanisms for the wastewater treatment plant expansion. This also leaves the BSCWSD board looking to Resort Tax for funding, as Reeves explained, so that water and sewer rate payers are not burdened with the cost of, basically, tourists’ toilets. The existing plant would work just fine for the current full-time population, but the influx of tourists is putting a strain on the infrastructure, he said. 

 

Necessary collaboration 

AE2S engineer Scott Buecker was present at both the Oct. 9 Resort Tax meeting and the Oct. 15 BSCWSD meeting. He stressed in both meetings that the district is running out of time and funding needs to be figured out sooner rather than later. 

The idea of a subcommittee was introduced at the Oct. 9 Resort Tax meeting and passed with unanimous board approval with board chair Kevin Germain and vice chair Steve Johnson serving. Before this, Resort Tax board members questioned Buecker, BSCWSD financial officer Terry Smith, water superintendent Jim Muscat and board member Richard Fast as some of the Resort Tax board members presented their cases as to what they would like to see from BSCWSD, many of them holding the belief that BSCWSD can address some major community issues. Board chair Kevin Germain, board treasurer Sarah Blechta and board secretary Buz Davis all argued for affordable housing, with Davis referencing the Community Visioning Strategy. Some stipulated that if funding were provided, they would expect an easier path with regard to SFEs and water and sewer hook-ups for high density developments geared toward affordable housing. Johnson spoke to what he deems the elephant in the room – the canyon – with its kinship to the Gallatin River and lack of centralized sewer treatment. 

The same sort of questioning happened at the BSCWSD meeting when Johnson visited to discuss the issue and extend an invitation to the subcommittee. 

Board president Packy Cronin expressing concern that the Community Visioning Strategy could overshadow some necessary steps – water and sewer being one of them.  

“Is Resort Tax letting this tell them what to do?,” Cronin asked Johnson. Johnson explained that it will serve as a sort of guide and partnerships between area organizations will be the only path forward. 

“On that list, all the things that I read on that big wheel require people using toilets,” DuCuennois quipped. 

Wheeler said that better communication between the Resort Tax and BSCWSD boards will be essential. 

“We need a vehicle to the board so we can start communicating,” board member Brian Wheeler said to the BSCWSD board members and staff before addressing Johnson directly, thanking him for the information he shared and saying, “It was kind of like a Senate hearing for you there for a while.” 

Wheeler discussed the 1996 building moratorium enforced by the Department of Environmental Quality that was entirely linked to sewer issues in the community. That same year, an interlocal agreement between BSCWSD and Resort Tax was created that “mandated an annual appropriation of an amount which is the lesser of $500,000 or 50% of the total amount of the resort tax revenues collected in any fiscal year for the purpose of funding improvements to the sewer system,” according to the Resort Tax website. That agreement expired in 2012, which means that BSCWSD representatives head to the annual Resort Tax appropriations meetings with a slew of other community organizations. This year, BSCWSD received $250,000 or half of its $500,000 funding requested for two engineering projects.  

“They didn’t put any stipulation on what project we used it for,” Smith said. 

BSCWSD board and representatives would like a consistent financial commitment from Resort Tax so they can have a set amount to count on each year. 

Buecker said that finalizing the BSCWSD wastewater treatment expansion will be difficult “without knowing what piece of that [funding] is coming from Resort Tax.” 

BSCWSD wastewater treatment expansion funding options will require voter approval. Bonding options were discussed as well as the additional 1% project specific ballot option with Resort Tax which was cleared at the state level the last legislative session. 

“Based on our project, when do we need to have the money in place to start bidding out this project?,” Reeves asked. 

“Scott [Buecker] would say sooner than you think,” Johnson said.

The board established that major headway needs to be made by January. 

The devil is in the details and nobody has worked through the details yet,” Johnson said. 

Reeves and DuCuennois elected to represent BSCWSD on the subcommittee. 

“There are opportunities here. We can certainly continue these discussions with the water and sewer district. These are heavy topics, but I think we have the right people to tackle them,” Germain said at the Resort Tax meeting.

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