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Niagara Falls Water Board plans sewer plant upgrades, small rate hike

The Niagara Falls Water Board's proposed $42 million budget would quadruple spending on repairs and upgrades to its wastewater treatment plant.

"Until we have a Christmas miracle and get a new plant, we have to repair the one that's there," said Board Member Gretchen M. Leffler.

The proposed 2018 budget calls for $1.6 million in capital projects for sewers, compared with $433,000 for such projects this year.

The budget also calls for $628,000 in attorney fees next year, compared with $260,000 this year. Leffler called that "outrageous."

But Board Member Nicholas J. Forster said legal fees have increased since the July 29 "black water" incident, when the plant discharged a black, gunky substance that shocked tourists and residents and garnered international headlines.

Black sewage plume at Falls raises flags on both sides of border

"We've had to bring in all kinds of environmental attorneys, specialized attorneys that are very costly," Forster said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation fined the Water Board $50,000 for the black water incident and for one of its many storm water overflows during heavy rains. Water Board officials say the sewage plant simply lacks the capacity to handle heavy rains.

Leffler supports the board's hiring of about 10 sewer workers this year and spending money to improve the 40-year-old sewer plant, especially  the sediment basins that produced the ink-like discharge.

"It was one of the sediment basins, Number 5, that led to the inky discharge, so it definitely does need repair," Leffler said.

Forster added that large parts of the system "hadn't had any attention paid to them in a lot of years. We need massive upgrades in infrastructure. We need all types of new technology ... We're fixing things that have been broken for a long time."

Last month, Forster told the City Council that repair efforts this year reduced the number of broken hydrants from 152 to 68, and the number of leaking water mains from more than 200 to 38.

The proposed budget includes a new $175,000 expense for "specialized security." Forster said security was beefed up in the wake of the black water incident, after the DEC and State Police tested access to the plant.

New contracts with the agency's unionized workers, approved earlier this year, drove substantial increases in payroll expenses. He added the contracts brought savings on health insurance benefits for current workers. The proposal, however, shows large increases in health costs for retirees.

Water and sewer bills are expected to increase slightly.

A rate chart released by the board shows a 2.5 percent rate increase, with a minimum quarterly bill for water and sewer service of $104.97. Forster said he expects that figure to be reduced before a vote on the budget Nov. 27.

The Water Board will hold a public hearing on the 2018 rates at 5 p.m. Monday at its offices at 5815 Buffalo Ave.

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