Jefferson County, AL approves more borrowing for sewer project
...after buying all private systems

News staff writer

Jefferson County commissioners on Tuesday approved borrowing as much as $250 million to continue funding its massive sewer rehabilitation project.

The millions borrowed would bring the total cost of the county sanitary sewer program to between $1.7 billion and $1.75 billion. The cost is expected to rise to nearly $3 billion before the 12-year sewer rehabilitation program is completed.

The original $1.5 billion estimate for the court-ordered sewer work "was a simple guess," Commissioner Mary Buckelew said after the meeting. "We were venturing into unknown territory then."

Mrs. Buckelew said county officials had some idea of the massive cost to fix its treatment plants, but they didn't know how bad municipal sewer lines were until crews started digging. "We had no clue about their condition," she said.

In 1999, the county borrowed $952.7 million to cover three years worth of some of its most expensive sewer projects to date. But after only two years, county officials said they need to borrow more money, about $250 million.

The money will be paid back by sewer customers, whose bills are expected to rise by as much as 60 percent within four years.

Commissioner Chris McNair, who oversees the environmental services department, said his department heads are watching how they spend the money "every hour of every day. We're watching it constantly" to keep customers' bills as low as possible.

McNair said the county is ahead of schedule in making the repairs and will probably borrow more money for more sewer work while interest rates are still relatively low.

The sewer work is being done because a federal judge in 1996 ruled that the county had violated the Clean Water Act when its waste water treatment plants dumped raw or partially treated sewage in area waterways during heavy rains. The county agreed to acquire all 21 sewer systems in the county and pay for renovating them.

2000 The Birmingham News. Used with permission.