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CITY CAN'T AFFORD WASTEWATER PROJECT

The city's wastewater-treatment plant needs to be replaced, but Niagara Falls Water Board members do not think that taxpayers can afford to pay for a $392 million project through more rate increases.

A consulting firm hired by the board presented options for replacing the nearly 28-year-old facility during a special meeting Tuesday, and the term "cost savings" was not part of the conversation.

The current plant on Buffalo Avenue is falling apart, and one option to replace it on its current site would cost the Niagara Falls Water Authority $107 million over the next 15 years, resulting in rate increases of as much as 11.3 percent. Even so, still more work would remain to be done after 2020.

Though there has been a significant decline in industrial flow and the concentration of pollutants, there is a pressing need to replace equipment, said Ed Markus, a consultant with Black & Veatch of New York City. Black & Veatch was paid $100,000 to put together a master plan for the wastewater plant and investigate the authority's options to fund it.

"When it was built, the volume and intensity of the corrosive material was so great that it has done a lot to the physical structure and equipment," Markus said. "It's more (corroded) than a plant that doesn't have to deal with industrial waste."

Richard Roll said the plant's deterioration has accelerated in the last couple of years.

"It's not a matter of 'if'; it's a matter of 'how,' " said Gary Smith, a member of the authority.

The firm recommended that the plant be rebuilt on the existing site because it would be cheaper, and proposed keeping the current chemical process instead of switching to a biological process to break down waste.

While board members agreed with those recommendations, they said they doubt that the city will be able to afford a complete replacement for the plant.

The firm's recommendation to finance the project would cost at least $4 million per year just to keep up with inflation, take money away from other capital-improvement projects such as line replacement and street work, and cost $5.7 million for annual operations and maintenance.

That translates into 7 percent rate increases for the next two years, a 9 percent increase in 2008 and then rates that would rise on a descending scale until 2020.

A 9.7 percent rate increase became effective Jan. 1.

"I don't think we can sustain rate increases like this or capital improvements like this, so where does that leave us?" said board member Dan Johnson. "Should we turn off the lights and go home?"

Regionalism, possibly reworking the billing structure for water and sewer charges, and lobbying the federal government for less stringent regulations and financial aid could be the answer, said Water Authority Executive Director Robert E. Game.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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