Morro Bay City Council fails again

October 20, 2016

Morro Bay 4OPINION by LINDA STEDJEE

Morro Bay’s water reclamation facility (WRF) project costs are approaching $3 million, but there is little to show for all that money. The city hasn’t even bought land to put the plant on, the new design has the same flaw as the old one rejected in 2013, and timely project cost data appears to be unavailable.

The city has spent a tremendous amount of money and essentially gotten nowhere.

In spite of all this, Morro Bay’s City Council members and mayor don’t appear to believe there are any serious problems. There are. The City needs to stop, step back, and rethink its plans before wasting even more of our tax money.

In 2013, the Coastal Commission told the city that its plans for a new sewer plant were flawed.  The commission asked that the new plant be relocated inland, so that it would be safe from several natural hazards: inland flooding, tsunamis, earthquake liquefaction damage, and sea level rise.  The ongoing project was halted and a new one, known as the WRF project, was initiated.

The new plant design includes three critical pieces of infrastructure: 1) The plant itself, where sewage will be treated and (eventually) re-usable water will be produced. 2) A massive lift/pumping station to be placed on the property where the current sewer plant is located. 3) A pipeline that will carry the sewage from the lift station to the plant. These three pieces of infrastructure are a system. If any one of them fails, the system fails.

Currently, the city hopes to build the plant at what is referred to as the “South Bay Boulevard site”, which is located north of the Casa de Flores assisted living facility, near the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1. Two other sites that the mayor and council previously supported, the Rancho Colina and Righetti sites, were eventually rejected.

Whether the latest potential site will ever be used is unknown.

The natural hazards that exist at the site rejected by the Coastal Commission are not present at the South Bay Boulevard site. However, those hazards are present at the site of the current sewer plant, and that is where the city plans to put the huge lift station that is necessary for the new plant to operate.

Project team members have said they have to put the lift station there, because that is where all the sewer lines from the city converge.

If the lift station failed, there would be no way to get the sewage to the new plant.  So, building the new plant inland would not address the commission’s concerns because, in the end, the new wastewater treatment system would be just as vulnerable to natural hazards as the old one. Yet it would cost, according to current estimates, well over $100 million.

This situation was initially pointed out by Morro Bay Planning Commissioner Richard Sadowski, who suggested that since the new design is no safer than the original one, we might as well put the whole plant on the old Hanson’s Concrete plant site, which is on city-owned land. The property is east of, and on slightly higher ground than, the site of the existing plant. This could save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, and would eliminate the need for the lift station and the long pipeline.

Initially, some project team members claimed that there was no problem with the lift station site because the tanks would be underground and thus, supposedly, safe from flooding. When the mayor and council were advised that some sewer plants also have their tanks underground, and told that such plants could be made just as safe as a lift station, there were no comments from the project team or from staff.

Meanwhile, as our money continues to be spent on a design “solution” that seems to be no solution at all, nobody seems to have a handle on project expenditures. At the Aug. 9 City Council meeting, the only consulting cost information provided to the mayor and council was in the “Water Reclamation Facility Advisory Committee Quarterly Budget Review Summary 4Q15/16.”

That report was, at the time, over three months out of date, and it came from a citizens’ advisory committee, not the project manager. There was no consulting cost data for the period from May 1 through Aug. 9. No one seemed to think that was a problem.

On Aug. 18, I submitted a public records request for reports showing more recent consulting costs, broken out by consultant and by high-level task. I was told that no such report existed, but was given a 51-page city general ledger transaction list so that I could do my own research and find the data I wanted.

According to my calculations, using data from that general ledger transaction list, consulting expenses for May 1 through Aug. 9 totaled $264,640.49. Of that, $194,211.01 was paid to just one consultant. That sounds pretty high to me, but the mayor and council didn’t know about it at their Aug. 9 meeting, so they couldn’t question it

When I subsequently complained about the lack of timely financial data to support good management of our tax dollars, Councilman John Headding emailed me and said, “detailed review of project costs at the level provided by our quarterly reports is a prudent way of overseeing and monitoring this important community project and managing our taxpayer dollars.”  I say he’s wrong. It isn’t.

That general ledger transaction list I received shows that, on Oct. 30, 2015, the city paid an invoice totaling $42,205.50 for “project management software” for the WRF project. That seems like lot of money, although reviews indicate this is pretty much the ultimate construction project management software package. Unfortunately it appears that its very expensive capabilities are not being used effectively, if at all.

Per the software vendor’s website, this software includes tools that allow its users to “provide visibility into the financial status of the project,” and to “track expenses against budgets in real time.” I am a retired project manager, so I know those are standard features. You have to establish specific objectives, and then track your progress against them, or you are not managing at all.

None of my clients would ever have tolerated out-of-date financial data on a project, but evidently, the Morro Bay mayor and council didn’t mind.

The problem here is, of course, that without current financial data for the project, the mayor and council can’t tell if we are getting a good return on our tax dollars or if, as seems to be the case with the WRF project, a very poor return.

Some people don’t seem to think that the mayor and council have any responsibility for WRF project failures. In its endorsement of the incumbent mayor, the editorial board of one local news source said it was absurd for critics to hold the mayor personally responsible for project delays, and that it is staff and the consultants who are responsible for the project work.

I take major exception to that. We do not vote for staff. We do not vote for consultants. We vote for the mayor and council members. We expect them to be good stewards of our tax dollars, to monitor the work of staff and consultants, and to make sure those dollars are not being wasted.

In the case of the WRF project, they have failed miserably.

Some say we can’t stop the project now, and must continue down the road we’re on. I think that is simply an attempt to save face and avoid admitting that the WRF project is a colossal failure and needs to be totally rethought. We have to stop throwing good money after bad. If we don’t do that, we risk bankrupting the city, and with our ever-rising sewer and water bills, a lot of taxpayers along with it.







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33 Comments

  1. Lindasmb says:

    I have a radical idea. How about setting aside the verbal sparring, (at least temporarily :) ) since some of us will never agree on some things, and see if anyone has any thoughts on how we might reduce the flooding in the area where the Hanson’s site and the existing plant are?

    Both Mr. Sadowski (who pointed out the lift station siting problem) and I are intrigued by something recently found in the old 2009 flood hazard study that shows the area is in a flood plain. The author, referring to an earlier study commissioned by the power plant, says:

    “It also shows the source of flood flows, with some flow coming from Morro Creek and other flooding from Atascadero Road (see Exhibit 2.2) The Atascadero Road flow results from the severe restriction of Morro Creek as it passes under several bridges in the vicinity of Hwy 1 (Main Street, Hwy 1 and ramps, and a pedestrian bridge). This causes floodwaters on the east side of Hwy 1 to back up and flow to the south and north. To the south, they flow over Highway 1 and through portions of the Power Plant and on to the ocean. To the north, floodwaters find their way through a mobile home park and Main Street where they would cross under Highway 1 at the Atascadero Road underpass. From there, flows follow Atascadero Road to the dunes with the some flow spreading out and heading towards the high school.”

    So, maybe this is overly optimistic, but might there be some way to attack the flooding problem at the sources ? Do we just have to put up with it, or could something be done to greatly reduce, or even stop some of the flooding before it even happens? Is there any chance Caltrans might provide any ideas, since it seems that their structures are a big part of the problem?

    It seems worthwhile to at least explore. It’s not just the sewer plant project that is the issue here. The high school and the RV park are in the same flood plain.

    (-14) 18 Total Votes - 2 up - 16 down
    • MBwaiter says:

      Mr. Sadowski did not point out the lift station siting problem. This problem was known and told to you, Richard, Council, and Coastal Commission when you all were adamant about moving the plant. The proposed plan at that time was on the Hanson Cement Plant property.

      (11) 11 Total Votes - 11 up - 0 down
  2. Redsoxman says:

    It’s nice to see that Linda has finally dumped the Kool-aide down the sink, but unfortunately, the ship has sailed, the cows are out of the barn, etc., etc. Andrea is not coming back. Rob is not coming back. Jamie Boucher is not coming back. Joe Woods is not coming back. And all the money (lots, lots lots!) that it took to decimate what was a well-organized team working for the benefit of Morro Bay is definitely gone, replaced with an extremely inept bag of misfit toys.Sorry about your problems, MB, but this is what happens when you don’t pay attention and fail to research the clowns that you voted into office, and for those of you who didn’t vote at all, thanks for nothing. Good luck trying to right this ship!

    (20) 24 Total Votes - 22 up - 2 down
    • taxpayer says:

      Yep. Linda was one of the main causes of this mess we’re in and now she has the nerve to tell us what we should do to fix it. Anyone who listened to her in the past is responsible for the situation we find ourselves in now. Anyone who follows her now, please go out and read the story of the pied piper. There’s an old saying, “Never let the same dog bite you twice”.

      We can all see what’s happened to the City of Morro Bay. If you walk out on a tree limb and cut if off while you’re standing on it, it hurts when you hit the ground and you can’t put the tree back together again. These last 4 years have been painful to watch but I guarantee that it’s only going to get worse.
      So sad to see what was once a community that cared about each other being torn apart a little bit at a time by people who really don’t care.

      (19) 23 Total Votes - 21 up - 2 down
      • mb business owner says:

        i believe that ms steedje authored over 200 pages of individual e-mails to the coastal commission staff and costal commissioners asking their denial of the permit for the plant rebuild on the existing site. If you don’t believe this, go the coastal commission website and download the over 1000 page document they have for the August 2012 hearing (that was subsequently “rescheduled” to after the elections and count the number of correspondence from her). I do find it most curious that now she is advocating for the plant to be rebuilt at……wait for it……technically the same site. I do applaud ms. steedje finally realizing what most of the city staff knew years ago, but as taxpayer and redsoxman have said above there has been so much damage done already, to fix it will take time, money and a new council majority – I hope ms. steedje is busy campaigning against those that she so supported just a few years ago.

        (15) 19 Total Votes - 17 up - 2 down
        • Lindasmb says:

          Nobody I know, including me, is advocating for the Hanson’s site because they think it’s the ideal place for the plant. Critical infrastructure should ideally be as far out of harm’s way as possible.

          The point is that IF the City is going to put that massive lift station at the site of the current WWTP, then they MIGHT AS WELL put the plant on the Hanson’s site, because overall, just moving the plant would not make us any safer from a serious sewer plant outage caused by natural hazards.

          I don’t agree that Hanson’s is “technically” the same site that was rejected before. On average, it’s several feet higher, and is back farther from the ocean. That at least gives some additional protection.

          Beyond that, a lot has been learned in the last few years about armoring infrastructure against flooding “courtesy of” Hurricane Sandy. New York City has made a huge project of upgrading wastewater infrastructure.

          (-9) 15 Total Votes - 3 up - 12 down
          • MBwaiter says:

            All of this was known and debated over 6 years ago by numerous experts and all reached a conclusion that the best place for the WWTP both environmentally and economically was at its current location. All flood and sea level rise issues can be mitigated and the plant was going to look like the one in Crescent City.Then along came Irons, and with people like you, got all the knowledgeable ethical employees fired. All you have at City Hall now are Yes Men like Buckingham and Likick.They don’t care about the City. Never have.

            (10) 10 Total Votes - 10 up - 0 down
    • Lindasmb says:

      Ah yes, I was wondering when the very-small-but-vocal Andrea and Rob group would come out. The fury and resentment at having lost power is obviously still very strong, even after all this time.

      What we have now is bad, but the group we had before was far, far worse, and it’s extremely fortunate that they are not coming back. They were so awful that the current bunch looked pretty good by comparison. Unfortunately, they just weren’t good enough.

      It will be interesting to see, if we can boot out this most recent bunch of “lemons”, if they, too, will still be spewing their fury four years down the road.

      (-14) 18 Total Votes - 2 up - 16 down
      • MBwaiter says:

        Give it time Linda..like your turn around on this issue, you will see how much we lost with our previous administration as you look back at how bad Buckingham and Palone have cost the community.

        (9) 9 Total Votes - 9 up - 0 down
  3. kkeene88 says:

    so my neighbor who is part of the “nextdoor” program just sent me an e-mail that shares the information that irons has spent over 1 million dollars in the last two years on the attorney. mr. Schultz made $200,000 a year which includes benefits. I don’t know if anyone else has seen this but in one particular month there attorney bill was 74K. Someone needs to do a public records requests as this is an obscene amount.

    (16) 16 Total Votes - 16 up - 0 down
    • taxpayer says:

      You do realize that the attorney gets paid for travel time back and forth to Ventura. I’m sure when he has to spend the night that he gets expenses too! Morro Bay has been sold down the river by this group of incompetents.

      (24) 24 Total Votes - 24 up - 0 down
  4. Lindasmb says:

    Project cost update:

    A general ledger transaction list covering the most recent WRF project costs has been obtained from the City. Consulting costs from the start of the project through October 20, 2016 total over $1,950,600. that’s just for consulting. Staff time, and other products and services are not included in that total. The highest-paid consultant has now received $606,929.20.

    As noted in the article, in 2015, the City paid $42,205.50 for “project management software. The latest cost data shows that in September, 2016, the City paid an additional $43,471.50 to the same vendor for “project management software, annual”. So, the City has paid over $85,000 for use of software, and yet, the project team doesn’t seem to be using it very well, given that they have not managed to provide the Council up-to-date cost figures.

    (5) 5 Total Votes - 5 up - 0 down
  5. MBwaiter says:

    Not only should the residents be demanding that a full accounting be given on the WWTP, but you also should find out how much the City is spending in legal fees. They have tripled since Shultz left but Irons does not care because the current City Manager and Attorney do whatever he wants

    (16) 22 Total Votes - 19 up - 3 down

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