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Cities face obstacles to regionalize operations

Whether it's technically feasible or not, regional water and sewer operations in Niagara County seem to have a lot of hurdles to overcome.
North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls officials visited here Wednesday night to try to resolve issues over whether to go ahead with a state-funded study of the feasibility of linking up the three cities' water and sewer plants.

The idea originated in Niagara Falls, but Lockport was named lead agency for last year's grant application, which netted $400,000. But the money hasn't come yet, because the Lockport and North Tonawanda councils haven't passed resolutions authorizing the signature of the contract sent in by the New York Department of State.

Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker said Albany has told him that "time is of the essence. . . . They're not going to sit on that money forever."
However, Council Presidents John Lombardi III of Lockport and Brett Sommer of North Tonawanda both said after the meeting that their councils would vote on the matter next week.
That came after a sometimes contentious discussion. North Tonawanda Utilities Superintendent Paul Drof came loaded for bear, griping that his city was never included in any discussions before the application was sent in 13 months ago.
"I don't know what you wanted to do during that process," Tucker replied. "We've got nothing to lose by taking that grant. . . . I don't understand the obstruction here."
"If we'd been involved in the application process, we wouldn't be asking these questions and we wouldn't be viewed as obstructionist," Drof commented.
Gerald Grose, executive director of the Niagara Falls Water Board, said his agency started the plan for a shared services effort. "The degree to which everybody participates in the study determines the quality of the study," Grose said. "We owe it to the ratepayers to see if there's some savings for them."
The application estimated 20-year combined savings totals of $54 million for sewer operations and maintenance and $39.8 million in savings on the water side. Also, $8.8 million in savings were estimated on future capital projects.
But Drof said some of the technical data in the application is wrong, and he pointed out that the Lockport wastewater plant, located in the hilliest part of the city, can't be connected to a common system. "It's an engineering impossibility," he said.
Drof also said that to link up the three cities, there would have to be $29.5 million worth of new construction of mains.
No one is sure if there would be one common water plant and one common sewer plant, or whether two of each would stay open. The location of merged plants also is anybody's guess.
Drof said the county water and sewer districts, which cover the towns, should be involved, because it would make more sense to use their infrastructure than for the cities to lay new pipes in the towns.
Niagara Falls chose its consultant, CRA Engineering, to complete the application. Grose said Lockport, as lead community, gets to choose the company that does the study. Tucker said it's probably going to be CRA.
"The Department of State doesn't want us to change horses in midstream," Tucker said. "(CRA) did the application for us on their own dime. They haven't gotten a penny."
Lockport Director of Utilities Michael W. Diel, when asked what's in it for Lockport, replied, "I don't know. You get $400,000 from the state to do a study, you have to look at it."
And it's not completely up to the city councils to make the call on merging. "It's very likely some of this will be subject to referendum, so you'll have to educate your residents," Steve Waldvogel of CRA said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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