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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MBwaiter

Linda Steedjee wrote to the Tribune and New Times in 2013 and said “The overwhelming majority elected Jamie Irons, Noah Smukler and ….Obviously, we elected the right people…..I urge the good people of Morro Bay to stand up for Irons, Smukler, and Christine Johnson…” It is always good to see when someone can stand up and admit their mistake! Now let’s correct the mistake. Vote Irons out of office.


MBwaiter

The only reason the Coastal Commission told the city to relocate the plant is because Irons, Smukler and Johnson told them to deny the project. At the Time, City Manager Lueker, City Attorney Shultz and Consultant McCabe had enough votes form the Coastal Commission to approve the project at its current location. The plant would have been built by now saving the City millions of dollars and approving the environment. Irons knew of the vote count and only a month after he was elected in Nov. 2012, he passed a resolution telling the Coastal Commission to deny the project. Lueker and Shultz were subsequently fired in 2013 by Irons, Smukler and Johnson because they refused to agree with Irons on this issue and many more.


taxpayer

Exactly! And that was the beginning of the end of Cayucos wanting to have anything to do with the City of Morro Bay. He’s kind of like that people who told us how great it was going to be when they shut the power plant down. They killed the goose that laid the golden egg. All the streets would be paved and there would be money left over. The city was guaranteed $2.25 million annually if the plant remodel would have happened. You get what you vote for and a group of Morro Bay voters sold the rest of the city down the river.


kkeene88

Are you kidding me, so this is the “why” that everyone wanted to know about why Schultz and Lueker were fired. They were both “on to” the corrupt irons, christine johnson and smuckler. how sad! I hope residents realize this before they fill out their ballots, irons needs to go!


Lindasmb

Yesterday, Snooky156 said, “Isn’t it much easier to bring a compromised sewage lift station back on line compared to a completely compromised sewage plant?” I sure couldn’t answer that, so I asked a couple of people who know a lot about lift stations.


I heard back from one of them, who shared some thoughts. They specifically address the risks of spills, not the task of bringing a station back online, but I think they are worth sharing because dealing with spills would certainly be part of bringing the lift station back online. This person, who has actually built lift stations in other areas, said, “One thing that comes to mind is that if the Lift Station fails it will overflow raw sewage as soon as the Wet Well fills up. With a WRF plant , there are several detention basins that could possibly be used to contain a spill and than the outfall could be used in an emergency to divert the sewage away from the area.” and, “Also, if the Force Main (FM) happens to break and starts to leak , that could potentially be a bigger problem because , the emergency crew would have to find a way to divert the sewage , circumventing the broken portion of the FM, while trying to make sure the LS doesn’t overflow. Depending on where the FM breaks it could pose a greater health risk if it is near a populated area.”


Another person I talked to focused on costs. He said that the main lift station is not the only one we will need. We’ll need others between the main station and the inland plant, and since all of those stations will use electric power, operations costs will be very high.


SanSimeonSam

OK so here is what i dont get. Morro Bay has a population of 10K, Cayucos has a population of 3500. The 2 communities are about 5 miles apart. Each community is independently building new sewage treatment plants. Seems to me that will be very expensive for both towns. And why you might ask……simply because the board members of each town are ignorant and cannot work or play well with others. As a ratepayer i resent these ignorant fools making decisions that will cost me more money than is necessary


Myself

Cayucos bought property on Toro creek for their plant, I was busy going to the meetings in Morro Bay and didn’t have time to waste to go to the meetings in Cayucos, but I’ll get there yet, I wonder what makes them think that the farmers and ranchers want to see and drive by a sewer plant every day, that canyon doesn’t even belong to Cayucos and no one is going to benifit from it being there except the Cayucos residents, methinks that the Davis property in Cayucos proper would have been a better choice.


panflash

Valid rational points are made here by the posters named Myself and SanSimeonSam. In fact, the rationale that they outline precisely illustrates the root of the problem.


For many years, the Cayucos representatives to the joint sewage treatment board tolerated the increasingly-frustrating dysfunction of the Morro Bay representatives. However, once Jamie Irons became Mayor of Morro Bay, any more attempts at reason, logic and common sense quickly evaporated.


Despite the onerous costs that they would need to undertake by going their own way, the Cayucos board members finally threw up their hands in attempting to deal with Morro Bay, and decided that it is preferable to accept those costs and control their own destiny.


Therefore, the Cayucos representatives finally told Irons and Morro Bay to go to Hell and pay their own way to get there.


Irons and the current Morro Bay Council live in a bizarre little fantasy world in which all decisions are made based upon what they would like the world to be, not on what the world actually is.


That exercise in imbecility is about to catch up with the City of Morro Bay and its residents, ratepayers and taxpayers, and the results are not going to be pretty. And when all that scheiss hits the fan, Irons and his Council compatriots will just walk away and leave the people of Morro Bay behind to deal with the disaster.


Now, if you were Cayucos, how much would you be willing to pay to extricate yourself from that insanity? Whatever that cost might be, Cayucos has accepted it.


And who could blame them?


taxpayer

Nobody could blame them that’s watched the circus called a City Council in Morro Bay. Cayucos made the only sensible decision for their ratepayers. They have taken charge of their own destiny and will have full control of their own sewer plant. Meanwhile, Morro Bay continues to run around in circles. Cayucos is so far ahead of Morro Bay in this process and Morro Bay shot itself in the foot again when it asked the Coastal Commission to deny the original project.


mb business owner

so smucker and christine johnson aren’t running, likely due to their abysmal records on city council. this is a perfect time to vote irons out before he wastes even more our our dollars. i do find some interest in ms. steedje’s comments as isn’t’ this the direction (basically) the city was going before irons, christine johnson and smukler came in and “saved the day”. wish i lived in osos!


Lindasmb

The big issue for me is that for some unfathomable reason, the City people don’t seem to understand that just moving the plant doesn’t address the flood and earthquake liquefaction risks. You have to be sure ALL of the infrastructure the plant depends on is safe too. If you don’t, then that shiny new plant could end up standing useless and idle because there will be no way to get the sewage there.


So, if they really don’t intend to move that lift station we might as well put the whole plant at the Hanson’s site and save tens of millions.


I think it’s also important to remember that the Hanson’s site was not available back when the earlier project was underway, and that a lot of new work has been done in the past few years developing effective ways to armor infrastructure against flooding. What might not have been feasible 10 years ago could be workable now.


snooky156

Isn’t it much easier to bring a compromised sewage lift station back on line compared to a completely compromised sewage plant?


Lindasmb

I think that would depend on how the plant is designed. Some of the newer ones are are much more advanced than the plant Morro Bay has now, and it only takes a couple of people to run one. Also, this lift station would be just about as big as a lot of plants


Snoid

Speaking in general term plant are “classified” under their type and flows. The water board sets forth the number of staff required based on the plants type and size. I dont know MB’s daily flows, peak,dry or wet, however Im sure its far under 3mgd. That being said maybe somebody should visit a few of the other local plants that pump 2 to say 5 MGD and see just what size of a foot print is needed to pump MB’s sewage to a plant in new location other than the current facility. There would be no massive pumping station. A wet well and 4 submersible pumps would handle the pumping needs, all underground with a above ground control room which would be no bigger than a large living room. Split in half with a emergency generator on one side and the breaker and telemetry on the other side, boom your done.

Don’t think Im a proponent for new plant at another location because Im not and here’s why based off ramblings Ive heard. Go visit any plant, their like massive concrete bomb shelters and a tidal surge wouldn’t do much damage structure wise. Build the plant on a new location for what? that chunk of valuable property that MB so desperately needs for a hotel, motel, convention center or whatever. How well will that stand up to a tidal wave or surge? It wont. If the land is to stay bare, great, natural coast line is great. To move the plant based on the deception of building a more valuable income generator for MB that’s safe during a Tsunami? BS, stop kidding yourselves.


Lindasmb

You sound knowledgeable and experienced, and yet, other knowledgeable and experienced people are saying the lift station would be huge – nearly as big as some modern plants. Maybe that’s where the apparent difference of opinion comes from.


There are modern plants that are tiny compared to the one we have now, and much of their infrastructure is underground. Compared to them, the lift station would seem gigantic, because it would be almost as big as they are, but compared to our existing plant, it would seem small.


So, maybe the apparent disagreement is just a difference in context.


I think you are right on with target with your statement that a plant can be built to withstand a huge wave or storm surge. As Mr. Sadowski has pointed out, look at the City of New York. Hurricane Sandy forced them to reevaluate and find ways to armor their infrastructure against the onslaught of storm surges, and in fact a lot of communities have had to learn to do this. Our challenge is far from unique.


Let me just throw out here one more issue with the plant being placed far inland. With this being earthquake country, the longer the line, the greater the chance that a quake could break it in one or more places. Then, once again, we have the scenario of the shiny new inland plant sitting idle because you can’t get the sewage there.


Lindasmb

In my “travels” as an activist, I became acquainted with a guy who has been building wastewater treatment plants for many years. He told me that in terms of risk, what the City is planning to do is pretty much like not moving the plant at all.


He didn’t say exactly why. My guess is that electrical equipment damaged by water and structure damaged by earthquake liquefaction would be big problems whether they were in a lift station or a plant, but I will email him and pose Snooky156’s question. Hopefully I will hear back soon, and when I do, I’ll post the information here.


Snoid

Without a doubt and far less costly.


jimmy_me

I live in Los Osos; I’ve seen all this before: perceived need, large project, lots of money involved, and decisions being made by good people who don’t understand the realistic parameters of the project. Don’t delay: pass the project up the food chain to have decisions made by well-intentioned but equally incompetent people at the county level.


panflash

Linda is absolutely correct on every single point here. In particular, the most absurd element of the Council’s WRF plan is:


“2) A massive lift/pumping station to be placed on the property where the current sewer plant is located.”


As Linda so aptly points out, “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 Irons/Council plan proposes pumping the City’s raw sewage UPHILL. This is, quite literally, imbecilic. Mayor Irons and the Council are leading the City of Morro Bay down a path of insanity and fiscal disaster.


Pelican1

The Mayor and council live in FANTSYLAND! They always have, and always will until such time as they are removed from office.