In 2001, A Town of Blacksburg study commission consisting of wastewater engineers, a member of Blacksburg Town Council, the Blacksburg Director of Public Works, wastewater experts statewide, a developer, and citizens, after conducting site reviews of sewer systems nationwide, concluded that STEP/STEG sewer technology provided a reliable, economical, aesthetic and sustainable option to serve the Toms Creek Basin to build-out (see the Toms Creek Sewerage Options Working Group consensus report).  This class of system was also supported as an option for mid-density areas such as Blacksburg by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA findings on decentralized wastewater systems).  The EPA's initiative to begin promoting decentralized wastewater technology a decade ago was in response to a series of nationwide disasters it has observed in past decades with gravity sewer systems traversing flood plains, which leak over time, causing sewage overflows, escalating repair costs, and decreasing overall sewer capacity.

The consensus findings of the Blacksburg sewerage options working group, consistent with EPA recommendations, were also supported by site visits conducted by Town Staff to decentralized systems serving several thousand homes in Washington, Oregon, and Tennessee.  Based upon this knowledge amassed by Blacksburg Town staff and a the successful experience with STEP/STEG in dozens of homes in the beautiful Village of Toms Creek in Blacksburg, there is no question that Blacksburg could support such sewer technology to serve the Toms Creek Basin to build-out.

During the winters of 2004 and 2005, a friend and I visited STEP/STEG systems serving several thousand homes in five of the most beautiful and fastest growing cities in Florida, conducting detailed interviews with public works staff in all cities and photographing dozens of homes in the sectors of each city served by STEP systems.  It's in fact much harder to deploy STEP in Florida given the flat terrain, since each system requires an individual pump, while in Blacksburg clusters of 40 or 50 homes typically can share one inexpensive liquid pumping station.  Yet in each city studied, the capital, operation, maintainence, and long-term total costs of STEP systems were the same or less than that of older technology sewers.  No odors were reported in any neighborhoods in Palm Coast (6,000 homes), Port St. Lucie (1,000 homes), Ormond Beach (1,050 homes), or Sebring (1,000 homes).  In Port Charlotte (5,000), featuring the oldest systems, installed before STEP design principles were well known, occasional odor problems were no more serious than those encountered with conventional sewers in Blacksburg and elsewhere.

We saw neighborhoods served by STEP ranging from moderately priced, closely spaced housing to gated communities and strikingly distinctive homes.  Here are a sampling of the photos of homes served by STEP systems in these cities:

above: Port Charlotte, O'Hare Drive (served by STEP sewer)


above: home in Port St. Lucie (served by STEP sewer), the second fastest growing city in the US (source: a town official, 2004).

above: homes in Palm Coast (served by STEP sewer), another of the fastest growing cities in Florida.

 above: home in Ormond Beach (served by STEP sewer)

above: home in Port Charlotte, O'Hare Drive (served by STEP sewer)

above: home in Ormond Beach, Breakaway Trails (served by STEP sewer)

above: homes in Sebring (served by STEP sewer)

Details follow below about problems with the gravity sewer plan for the Toms Creek Basin, a 1968 design that would serve only 40% of the basin, which was rejected four times since 1968, most recently in 2004 by a 78% to 22% vote in the Blacksburg Town Council election, and in 2007 by the Virginia Supreme Court.  Such systems traversing a flood plain face inevitable leakage problems over years, resulting in sewage overflows, escalating repair costs, and ultimately diminished capacity for the region served.

Blacksburg’s sewer saga finally ends
David E. Scheim
guest column, Roanoke Times, March 11, 2007
David E. Scheim is the author of the 1989 top-ten international best seller, Contract on America.

Let me share a secret about political writers and reporters: We don't like to be misled. We prefer truth, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, sometimes uncomfortable, but the lifeline of democracy.

Here's the truth about an abortive push for an outmoded, technically flawed, overpriced 1968 sewer design for the Toms Creek Basin in Blacksburg, struck down for the fourth time on March 2 by the Virginia Supreme Court.

In 2001, a modern sewer technology option called STEP/STEG could have been installed to ultimately serve the entire Toms Creek Basin. Receiving unanimous high marks from an expert town of Blacksburg commission and also from the Environmental Protection Agency, it successfully serves the basin's largest new development.

This opportunity was derailed in 2003, however, by a push for the 1968 sewer boondoggle that would have served just 40 percent of the Toms Creek Basin. This type of sewer system has caused billions of dollars worth of leakage and overflow problems nationwide when used in areas with Blacksburg's characteristics.

A firm responsible for such egregious problems in Roanoke was a prime bidder for the abortive Blacksburg project. See [this web site,] for technical details and photos of homes, from modest to spectacular, among thousands served by STEP in some of the fastest growing cities nationwide.

Had there been any credible case for the flawed 1968 sewer design, there would have been no need for the following series of travesties, which sunk the project and changed the composition of Blacksburg Town Council in the landslide election result of 2004:

In May 2003, Blacksburg officials declared a sewer capacity crisis that, they claimed, required immediate construction of the 1968 sewer boondoggle. This crisis was as phony as WMDs in Iraq. The bottleneck, known at the time, was in fact a minor sewer repair needed under Webb Street. This repair was done -- no more capacity crisis -- after the sewer boondoggle was defeated in 2004.

Throughout the 2003-04 sewer discussions, town officials insisted to council, citizens, the press and a state agency, under the town seal, that engineering costs for project construction would be $100,000. In fact, as released in April 2004 under a freedom of information request, Blacksburg all along had an active engineering agreement for project construction with costs detailed in 87 line items at exactly $437,850.

When comparing costs for the 1968 boondoggle plan vs. STEP/STEG, town officials used a calculation they called "Future Value Accounting." This was the same term that jailed Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling used as a joke in a 1997 videotape. This joke calculation method boosted the comparative costs of the STEP/STEG option 5.7 times higher than the real figure obtained by the standard accounting calculation of net present value.

After citizens brought suit to block the project, on April 9, 2004, a sworn affidavit signed by a town official was presented to Judge Robert Turk claiming that a 30-day delay would cost the town $600,000. This figure was again misreported; the amount was $300,000. After the claim fared poorly in court, perhaps fearing scrutiny of this figure, a town representative hastened to inform Turk that the delay would cost nothing after all -- the bank would hold the loan rate another 30 days.

In April 2004, former town officials sent a police SWAT team with rifles and flak jackets accompanying sewer contractors to the homes, curiously, of only prominent opponents of the sewer project. Two town officials gave vague and contradictory explanations for why this SWAT team was called out.

This Blacksburg story had a happy ending. The heroes who stood up for citizens and stopped this travesty now comprise Blacksburg's government and continue to work for a vital and growing town. But a series of concurrent events in Washington during that period, in which a phony crisis was promoted with fixed intelligence and top administration officials who told the truth about costs, troops needed and forged nuclear claims were pushed aside, had a more tragic result.

Although we were misled, we were also graced with a lesson. When a scheme, whether a "bridge to nowhere" project or an ill-advised war, is promoted through contrived crises, phony numbers and savaging those who tell the truth, then it has neither merit nor public benefit.

Let us apply this lesson so that sewer service to the Toms Creek Basin will be cost effective and befitting Blacksburg's distinctive features: best available technology and beautiful natural habitat. And let Blacksburg continue to shine forth as a guiding light of American democracy.

Blacksburg’s sewer decision charade
David E. Scheim
guest column, Roanoke Times, April 18, 2004
Scheim is a resident of the Toms Creek Basin and a member of Blacksburg's sewer options working group.

Last week I almost fell out of my chair when I opened a stack of documents I had received under the Freedom of Information Act from Blacksburg's town attorney. The startling item was a 90-page agreement between the town and Anderson and Associates for engineering services to construct a Toms Creek Basin gravity sewer. It was signed by Town Manager Gary Huff on May 21, 1999, just ten days after town council had directed its staff to study other sewer options.

This latest revelation has come as a shock to even long-time opponents of the gravity sewer plan. While creating the public impression that sewer options were being objectively reviewed, town staff, behind closed doors, had predetermined its sewer decision in 1999.  Also, since June 2003, the staff claimed that the engineering budget for the gravity sewer plan was $100,000.  But the actual budget agreed upon by the staff for engineering work associated with construction of this sewer was $437,850, which is minimal for this type of project.

The amazing story begins with council's compromise sewer vote of May 11, 1999. Council voted that day to award a $545,539 contract to Anderson and Associates to design phase I of the 30-year-old gravity sewer plan. At the same time, the council also voted to direct its staff to study more current sewer technology options.

Only 10 days after council's vote, the town manager signed a million-dollar agreement with Anderson and Associates for engineering services to design and construct phase I of the gravity sewer. By its language, stating that the town "intends to construct a [gravity] sewer," this agreement defied the council's direction to study modern sewer alternatives.

Specifically, this 90-page agreement budgeted $545,539 in fees for phase I design, as council had approved, plus an additional $437,850 for engineering work associated with construction. The second figure was broken down into 87 line items detailing specific engineering tasks, some of which Anderson has already begun (see  [Engineering tasks associated with construction were also charted on a time-line stretching from February 2000 through September 2001.]

Yet in May 2003, when the town staff renewed its request for a sewer decision, surprisingly missing from its budget for the gravity sewer plan was any money for engineering.  When residents caught this omission, staff increased the engineering budget to $100,000 for "supplemental construction inspection."  The staff stated this budget of $100,000 for engineering in the town's submission to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on February 18, 2004, even after this unusually low figure prompted a DEQ reviewer to request "a rationale for the budgeted construction inspection cost [of $100,000]."

It took several public questions at the March 9 funding hearing plus follow-up e-mails and phone calls to finally receive this 90-page agreement with the actual $437,850 engineering budget for sewer construction. This figure is particularly relevant now, with construction bids and actual engineering and easement costs for phase I totaling more than the $7.6 million funding allowance.

While staff underestimated the engineering costs of the gravity sewer option, it grossly inflated the operation and maintenance costs of the competing sewer option. On July 15, 2003, town engineer Meredith Tremel detailed and mapped to town council a plan for a U.S. 460 Bypass force main plus STEP sewers for the Toms Creek Basin. STEP sewer technology, already used in Blacksburg's public sewer system, has been successfully serving communities nationwide for two decades, including some of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Tremel told council that this combined bypass-plus-STEP sewer option would provide the same sewer service as the gravity sewer plan, and estimated its total cost at $6.9 million.

But $6.9 million was much less than $11.5 million, staff's understated estimate for its gravity sewer plan, phases I and II.  So staff found a way around this problem with creative accounting.

Staff estimated the operation and maintenance (O&M) costs for the bypass-plus-STEP sewer option over 50 years. Then, using an invalid calculation method, it claimed that the cumulative 50-year O&M cost was 167 percent of capital cost. According to the standard accounting calculation (net present value), this 50-year O&M cost was actually 29 percent of capital cost. By thus multiplying the O&M figure for the bypass-plus-STEP option by 5.7 times, the staff was able to claim that its favored option cost less.

Blacksburg should not select an outmoded, environmentally destructive sewer option based on concealed and manipulated costs when a better and less expensive sewer option is available.  When sewer proponents on town staff and council resort to bypassing the town's charter and massively rewriting its comprehensive plan to advance a sewer project that has never been credibly justified, it's time to take stock of what the town has come to.

As former council member Michael Chandler recently observed, "The issue before Blacksburg is not one of growth versus no growth or developers versus tree huggers, but of accountability in government. The May election has become a referendum on whether Blacksburg will choose to govern itself in a forthright, objective and competent manner or in a haphazard and biased fashion."    Let's vote for responsible government in the town council election May 4.

Additional note.  The concealed and manipulated costs reported above are just a few examples of a compromised sewer decision process.  For example, on May 20, 2003, staff told Council that newly collected data showed that there was a serious sewer capacity crunch n the North Main sector of Town, and that Council had to make a quick decision to rectify it - either a TCB gravity sewer or North Main repairs.  The Town manager insisted on May 28 that this decision was only about North Main, not the TCB.  But in early June, when it emerged that a 2.5 mile sewer line along the US 460 bypass could fully solve the North Main capacity crunch to build-out, staff decided, oops, it was serving the TCB, not North Main, that was the problem (see below).

After it was confirmed in early June 2003 that a US 460 bypass force main would solve the North Main capacity problem relatively quickly and inexpensively, Town staff spent the next two Council meetings focusing on a seven-lagoon option that was of interest to neither Council nor citizens.  It soon became clear that a combination of the US 460 bypass sewer line for North Main plus STEP sewers for the Toms Creek Basin would fully serve both North Main and the Toms Creek Basin.  But throughout June, staff featured a chart of sewer options that treated the US 460 bypass and STEP options separately, and claimed that its favored gravity sewer plan was the only option to provide a complete solution.

An expert Town appointed Working Group, consisting of wastewater engineers, government officials, a developer, and citizens, studied decentralized sewer options for ten months in 2000-2001 and issued a consensus recommendation that STEP collection was a viable, economical and aesthetic option for the Toms Creek Basin.  But during the entire 2003 sewer decision process, the only input from the Working Group, and the only wastewater expert not on Town staff called upon to address Council was the chair of the Working Group, Gary Crouch, an Anderson vice president.  It turns out that he was also the Anderson engineer who signed the 1999 agreement for his company to construct the TCB gravity sewer.  Staff's choice to select only him to address Council on this matter put him in an untenable position, and set up an outrageous conflict of interest.  By removing any other input from wastewater engineers into the sewer decision process, staff gave sewer proponents on Council free reign to substitute rumors, conjectures and aphorisms about sewer systems for actual data and facts.

Several times during the sewer decision process, when staff's objectivity was called into question, the Town manager made public statements to Council insisting that staff was merely presenting different sewer options and had no bias.  But at the public hearing on March 9 on the sewer funding ordinance, two prominent supporters of the gravity sewer plan both stated that they supported that plan because staff had recommended it, and they trusted staff.  This time, there was not a word of protest from anyone on Town staff that they had objectively presented the different options.

“Agreement for Engineering services for the Toms Creek Sewer Project between the Town of Blacksburg and Anderson and Associates, Inc.”  This is a detailed, 90-page agreement including nine appendices and addendums covering such items as payments terms, a certificate of liability insurance, a statement of non-discrimination, and additional details on tasks and costs associated with sewer construction.

(NOTE: to see cost sheet and other documents most clearly, right click on the link, select "save target as," open the saved gif file, and then adjust the view magnification in your image viewer.)

Cover page
Opening statement: Blacksburg “intends to construct ..."
Signature page

Cost sheets, pp. 1 and 2, providing these totals of costs by category:

Design phase.  Preliminary design: $282,176; final design: $263,363;  total for design: $545,539
Post-design phases.  Bidding phase: $23,086.  Construction phase: $385,676.  Post-Construction phase: $29,088.  Total post-design phases, which encompass engineering work associated with the construction of the sewer: $437,850.

Cost sheets, pp. 12, 13, 14, 15, providing a detailed breakdown of engineering costs in the post-design phases into 87 line items.

Project Schedule, pp. 1, 2 and 3 (or pp. 1-3 combined in a TIFF document).  This document places 84 itemized tasks in the design, bidding, construction and post-construction phases on a time-line stretching from March 1999 to September 2001.  The post-design phases are charted in p. 3 charted on a time-line stretching from February 2000 through September 2001.]

Appendix A1, Scope of Services, pages 6 and 7, describing the engineering tasks in the bidding, construction, and post-construction phases.  It is noteworthy that recent documents on the web site of Anderson and Associates state that Anderson and Associates is the project engineer for TCB sewer, and also that 1) during the last few months, Anderson has in fact been performing precisely the five bidding phase tasks itemized above, from the 1999 engineering agreement, and 2) in general, the tasks specified for the post-design phases in the 1999 engineering agreement correspond precisely to the tasks of the project engineer as itemized in documents currently posted on Andersons web site.

Purchase order, 6/1/1999, for $545,539 to Anderson and Associates for phase I design of the TCB gravity sewer, as approved by Town Council on May 11, 1999.
Expenditures on this purchase order through 3/31/2004 of $528,191. ($17,348 remains unspent.)

The $7.6 million sewer funding allowance versus actual costs
On March 9, 2004, Town Council passed a funding ordinance authorizing a $7.6 million bond for the TCB sewer project based upon the following budget: $7.05 million for construction costs, $100,000 for easement costs, $100,000 for engineering, $250,000 for phase II design, and $100,000 for other expenses, including bond placement.

But actual costs have proved to be: $7.56 million for construction, at least $100,000 for easement costs,  $400,000 for engineering, per the real budget of the above agreement (some bidding phase tasks were covered with remaining phase I design funds, and $17,000 remains under that contract), plus about $100,000 in bond placement and other expenses.

Blacksburg's statements about sewer engineering costs to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). 
On February 10, 2004, on behalf of the Town of Blacksburg, Anderson and Associates submitted an amended preliminary engineering (PER) report to DEQ.  The engineering budget for the project, specified in four costs sheets (pp. 1, 2, 3 and 4) was $100,000 for "supplemental construction inspection."  Page 4 was in fact almost an exact photocopy of a cost sheet that Town staff had provided to David Scheim on June 3, 2003, except that handwritten notations, including "does not include inspections, easements, engineering," were not shown in the version provided to DEQ.  (NOTE: to see this or any other cost sheet more clearly, right click on the link, select save target as, open the saved gif file, and then adjust the view magnification in your image viewer.)

Following the submission of this PER to DEQ, DEQ engineer Dan Scott wrote a memo to Anderson and Associates engineer Thomas Digiulian asking, among other things, to "Please provide a rationale for the budgeted construction inspection costs."  In response, Anderson and Associates sent DEQ a revised amended PER on February 18, which addressed this question in the following paragraph on page 3:

"The original PER assumed that the Town would contract with a private consultant to perform the needed inspection during the construction process.  This cost was estimated in the [1998] PER at 8% of the estimated construction costs.  Since the [1998] PER, however, the Town has decided to perform the construction inspection using Town Staff.  In addition, the Town has currently budget $100,000 for supplemental inspection by a private consultant to be used if needed.  Additional funding will be provided, if needed, to see that the project is constructed in accordance with the plans, specifications, and SCAT regulations."

But the 1999 engineering agreement with Anderson and Associates budgeted that the Town would pay Anderson $299,624 to perform construction inspections (see costs, pp. 14 and 15).  This is a realistic figure; the $100,000 figure claimed to DEQ, the subject of DEQ's query,  is unusually low.  Also, the 1999 engineering agreement with Anderson and Associates specified that construction inspections ("inspector," under Resident Project Representation), would occupy 5200 hours of an inspector's time, or 2.5 person years of time.  Also, such construction inspection requires specialized training.  In contrast, however, it appears that the few engineers on Blacksburg Town staff are overwhelmed with their current workload.  It does not appear that Blacksburg's claim to DEQ, given the existence of its engineering agreement with Anderson and Associates, was credible.

(See details in the complete correspondence of David Scheim with Town Manager Gary Huff.  Note: a full copy of this 90-page agreement was distributed on April 9 to eight Town and press contacts.)

April 12, 2004.  Citizens win first round of court battle.
Blacksburg has postponed making any decision about sewer contracts until after May 13.

March 24, 2004:

Newly discovered documents detail significant current work by the engineering firm Anderson and Associates in support of the bidding and contract award process for Blacksburg's planned Toms Creek sewer project.  These documents also detail the central and extensive role of Anderson in the construction of this sewer line (e.g., 94 references to the Engineer’s role in the Technical Specifications and over 300 references to this role in document 00700, General Conditions)

This engineering work is necessary and appropriate.  The question raised is that in detailed documents submitted to the Virginia Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on February 10 and 18, 2004, Blacksburg itemized costs for the planned Toms Creek gravity sewer project that included no budget whatever for engineering costs (see below).  Blacksburg's recently passed funding ordinance for phase I of this same project is based upon this same budget.  A Town official has recently reported that "the only contract the town has entered into with regard to the Toms Creek sewer project is with Anderson and Associates for Phase I design.  Currently the town has no contracts in place for other services related to this project."  An inquiry to this official for clarification of this statement is currently pending.

The bigger issue here is that Blacksburg has detailed two vastly different sets of costs for this sewer project in 1998 and 2004, both to DEQ and in connection with funding requests made in each year.  The 2004 costs are millions of dollars lower, and minor project changes since 1998 ($600,000 in costs for two deleted lines, $550,000 spent for phase I design) account for only a fraction of the difference.  This discrepancy is highlighted by the Blacksburg’s Mayor’s statement of July 29, 2003, concerning Town staff's estimate of $11.5 million for the total project (including these two lines since deleted): “I would be not truthful with the citizens if I tried to downplay the cost. We've heard all these numbers like $11 million for the central sewer system. $16 million is probably a more accurate number.”  Click for the audio file.

These questions relate to the broader issue of how the Town claimed that the TCB gravity sewer would cost less than a competing sewer option providing the same service, when a standard accounting calculation using figures provided by the Town indicates it would actually cost double the competing sewer option (see details below)

Some 75 documents posted on the Anderson and Associates web site demonstrate that the firm is currently expending significant resources in managing the bidding and contract award process for the Toms Creek sewer project.  Several dozen are complex documents recently developed specifically for this project's contract bidding and award process.  A&A is listed as the Engineer for the project (documents 00300, 00501 on this site), has held a pre-bid conference in its offices for perspective bidders (documents 00130, 00200), and is listed as the contact point for potential bidders (documents 00130, 00200, 00300).  The preparation of these many documents specific to this project and these other activities currently being conducted by A&A to manage the contracting process involve significant effort, consistent with the 3% contract administration cost cited in the Town’s 1998 cost estimates provided to DEQ, but zeroed out in its 2004 cost estimates provided to DEQ (see below).

Details on 1998 v. 2003-2004 cost discrepancies.

A guest column published February 22, 2004 in the Roanoke Times provides an overall chronology of Blacksburg's curious sewer decision process. Key cost documents are provided below in the context of this related sequence of events.

In May 2003, Blacksburg Town staff told Council that due to a sewer capacity crunch in the North Main sector, Blacksburg needed to make a rapid decision to build a Toms Creek Basin gravity sewer line at a stated cost of $11.4 million or perform North Main sewer repairs at a cost of $6 million. (The TCB sewer cost estimate was at that time stated to be $11.2 million not including easements, which were later budgeted at $175,000).

Mary Houska, a Blacksburg economist, comparing Town cost sheets and construction documents dating back to 1998, however, concluded that $4.5 million in required project costs had been omitted.  She itemized these costs in a memo of June 10 to Town Council, and concluded that $16 million was a more accurate cost estimate for the project.  Most significant among the missing costs she itemized were engineering and related costs.  These had been listed at a total of 25% in 1998 cost sheets, p. 28 and p. 31, as provided in a report to DEQ.   But she found they had been completely zeroed out in the Town's new cost estimate for the project.

On June 17, the Director of Planning and Engineering explained at a Town Council work session that in fact, item by item, the 25% in engineering and related costs were no longer required.  This was shown in two pages of a powerpoint presentation she presented on June 17.  She did, however, add $100,000, or 1% of project cost, for "supplemental inspections" during construction.  That increased the Town's cost estimate from $11.4 million to $11.5 million.  In summary, the Director of Planning and Engineering claimed that 9% in engineering costs, 8% for inspections, 3% for contract administration, and other related costs itemized in 1998 had shrunk to a total of 1% for inspections in the 2003 project budget, and that was all the engineering related costs that needed to be expended.

In fact, this claim had the appearance of being a fib, since a 10% on-the-job engineering and inspection budget is usually minimal for this type of project.  Blacksburg Town staff, however, stuck with these same figures in cost sheets 1, 2, 3 and 4 submitted to DEQ on February 10 and 18, 2004, and used these same costs again in the budget for the funding ordinance passed by Town Council on March 9 for phase I of this project.

Cost sheet 4, in fact was almost an exact photocopy of a Town cost sheet that Town staff had provided to David Scheim on June 3, 2003.  (NOTE: to see this or any other cost sheet more clearly, right click on the link, select save target as, open the saved gif file, and then adjust the view magnification in your image viewer.)  The only difference was that a few handwritten notations, including, most notably, "Does not include inspections, engineering, easements" from this original cost sheet were removed in the 2004 submission to DEQ.  It was thus clear that the final 2004 budget for the TCB sewer project included no money for engineering, except for the $100,000 that was itemized for "supplemental construction inspections."

In Blacksburg's 2004 submissions to DEQ, also provided was a detailed set of figures for 50-year operation and maintenance costs for both the proposed gravity sewer plan and for a competing sewer option that provided identical sewer service (the "US 460 bypass plus STEP sewer option").  This was identical to figures in this and another Town document that Town staff had presented in September 2003.  (Note: to view "this" document, right click, save, and open.)

These cost figures, first of all, precisely specified the capital cost of the US 460 bypass plus STEP sewer option at $6.9 million total.  Using the standard net present value calculation always used to compare projects in industry or government and the Town's O&M figures for out years 1 thru 50, the total 50-year O&M cost for the bypass plus STEP sewer option was 29% of its capital cost.  But Town staff used an irregular "future worth" calculation, never used to compare projects, to multiply this figure by 5.7 times and conclude that this 50-year O&M cost was 167% of the capital cost for the bypass plus STEP sewer option.  Details of these calculations are provided in this spreadsheet.  A Virginia Tech economics professor told Town Council on October 14 that anyone who used this "future" worth accounting method to compare projects in industry "would be fired."

In fact, using the $16 million cost estimate for the TCB gravity sewer project that the mayor called "accurate," and standard accounting methods to add in 50-year operation and maintenance costs, total 50-year costs for this project were double those of the US 460 bypass plus STEP sewer option.  But using the $11.5 million cost estimate the mayor indicated was "not truthful" and a calculation method that multiplied O&M costs by 5.7 times, Town staff told the Planning Commission and Blacksburg citizens that the TCB gravity sewer option would cost less than the bypass plus STEP sewer option, as it reported in its September 2003 "Frequently asked questions" document.

Three members of the Blacksburg Planning Commission indicated to citizens that Blacksburg's claim that lifecycle costs for the TCB gravity sewer plan would be less than those for the bypass plus STEP option was an important factor in their decision to support staff's proposed amendments to Blacksburg's Comprehensive Plan to allow construction of the gravity sewer plan.

The 4-3 majority on Town Council favoring this plan did not indicate much confidence, however, in this cost comparison and this claimed cost advantage for the gravity sewer option.  In the October 14, 2003 Comprehensive Plan changes it approved, it struck this sentence from the existing Plan: “The town will implement a public wastewater system once a final cost/benefit comparison study has been completed.”  It replaced it with this sentence: “Council has determined that a central sewer system should be constructed.”  No cost-benefit analysis.  No comparison study.  No reason provided.

On March 9, 2004, a lame duck 4-3 majority on Blacksburg Town Council, in defiance of the Town's charter requirement of a 5 vote supermajority to incur debt, voted to authorize a bond of $7.6 million to fund phase I of the Toms Creek gravity sewer project.  More precisely, this figure includes a $7.25 million budget for phase I of the project, $250,000 in phase II design costs, and $100,000 in financing and other expenses.  The $7.25 million cost for phase I matches this cost as stated in the above-cited 2004 cost sheets provided to DEQ.

In 1998, however, Blacksburg had applied to the Virginia Revolving Loan Fund for phase I of virtually this same project stating a cost of $10,841,000 in the loan application. This was the same phase I project cost that Blacksburg budgeted to DEQ in 1998.  Adjusting for $600,000 in cited costs of two lines removed in the 2004 planned project, and $550,000 spent in 2000 for engineering design for phase I, this still leaves a $2.5 million discrepancy between the 1998 and 2004 funding figures for phase I of the project.

This leaves Blacksburg now in the position of planning to begin construction of this project with a budgeted cost of 1% for supplemental inspections, $0 for engineering (budgeted at 9% of project cost in 1998), and $0 for contract administration (budgeted at 3% of project cost in 1998).  Contract administration alone, which, as noted above, is already underway, will require 100-200 hours per week once construction begins.  This does not appear to be a credible plan.  Actual costs for engineering work on this project will thus indicate if Blacksburg's entire budget for this project, upon which Town Council, the Planning Commission, and citizens based the Town's sewer decision, is credible.


Blacksburg’s Plan for a Sewer Cost Overrun
by David E. Scheim (guest column)
Roanoke Times, New River Valley Current Section, Feburary 22, 2004

David E. Scheim, a resident of the Toms Creek Basin, is the author of the 1989 New York Times best seller, Contract on America, an expose on organized crime

Blacksburg has been wrestling since last May with a choice between two sewer options.  One is a 12-mile Toms Creek Basin (TCB) gravity sewer line costing $16 million.  The other is a 2.5-mile sewer line along the US 460 bypass plus STEP sewers costing $6.9 million total.

As a Town engineer detailed to Council on July 15, each option would completely serve both North Main and the TCB to build-out—same homes serviced.

A 4-3 majority on Blacksburg Town Council plans to vote on March 9 to authorize a $7.6 million phase I sewer bond, which would increase the Town’s indebtedness by 50 percent.  It would likely yield cost overruns but little useful sewer service, as revealed in this curious sequence of events:

June 2000. Blacksburg charters an expert Working Group, which, after a ten-month study, concludes by consensus that STEP sewers are a reliable, economical, and aesthetic sewer option for the TCB.

Fall 2000. STEP sewers are installed in the largest new development in the TCB.  They continue to function well there as they have since 1980 in communities with thousands of homes each, including some of the fastest growing and most prosperous cities in the nation.  Operation and maintenance costs are low.

May 2003. Town staff tells Council that due to a sewer capacity crunch in the North Main sector, Council must decide within two months to build a TCB gravity sewer or perform North Main sewer repairs.  The Town manager explicitly states that this decision is about North Main, not the TCB.

June 3.  Town staff reports that a 2.5-mile sewer line along the US 460 bypass proposed by a Council member would completely serve North Main to build-out at a cost of $2-4 million, and could be built relatively quickly.

After June 3.  Oops, the North Main problem isn’t so pressing, gravity sewer proponents decide.  The issue is about sewering the TCB after all.

Also on June 3.  Town Council hears a 10-minute presentation by the chair of the Town’s sewerage options Working Group.  He is also a lead engineer for the TCB gravity sewer project.  The Working Group is then dismissed.

June 10.  Economist Mary Houska, after reviewing Town cost sheets, itemizes to Council $4.5 million in costs missing from Town staff’s 2003 cost estimate of $11.5 million for the TCB gravity sewer project.

July 15.  A Town engineer reports to Council that the US 460 bypass plus STEP option would cost $6.9 million and provide the same sewerage service to build-out in North Main and the TCB as provided by the gravity sewer option.

July 29.  Blacksburg Mayor Roger Hedgepeth admits that staff’s cost estimates around $11 million for the gravity sewer project are “not truthful” and that “$16 million is probably a more accurate number.”  This matches the conclusion of Houska’s June 10 memo.

October 14.  In another 4-3 vote, Council deletes the directive to make a sewer decision based upon “a final cost benefit comparison study” from the Comprehensive Plan.  With the selected 1968 gravity sewer design costing double the bypass plus STEP option, this no longer applies.

March 9, 2004.  Four Council members plan to vote for funding phase I of the gravity sewer based on the cost estimate the Mayor indicated on July 29 was $4.5 million too low.  This would circumvent the Town Charter’s and Town Code’s requirement of five votes for this funding ordinance.  If the courts don’t stop this, the next milestone would likely be:


2006.  Surprise, surprise!  Funds are spent, and millions more dollars are needed to complete phase I.  And millions more later to finally construct phase II to connect to North Main.


This calls to mind two Roanoke sewer projects that have run up $40 million in cost overruns since 1999, at 50% and 61% over contracted costs.  Millions of gallons of sewage overflows from such ill-conceived projects have polluted Roanoke’s rivers and streams.


The cost discrepancies noted should be investigated before a vote on this proposed bond ordinance.  The good citizens, Council and staff of Blacksburg deserve due diligence and due process in this decision.


If the proposed gravity sewer were a justifiable option, why are its proponents unwilling to provide reliable cost figures, engage the expert Working Group Council had asked to study this issue, or follow the Town Charter and Code?  After the 2002 Waste Management contract fiasco, why is Council again being rushed into a questionable decision?


Let’s stand up for the best in Blacksburg at Council’s bond hearing on March 9 and in the May 4th Town Council election.


The TCB gravity sewer's $2,346,000 pumping cost

The controversial Tom’s Creek Basin “gravity” sewer would use a $2,346,000 pump station, actual construction bid, to pump all the Basin’s sewage 170 feet up from the Basin’s lowest point. 

In contrast, the cost of the 11 to 16 pump stations to pump fluid STEG effluent in an alternate STEG hybrid design is about $15,000 each, according to engineering estimates and Blacksburg Town documents.  That’s about $240,000 total, one-tenth the pumping cost for the “gravity” sewer.

Yet in an opinion piece on April 25, William Aden wrote: “Somewhere between 11 and 16 pump stations must be constructed and operated to accommodate the STEG-hybrid system [for the Toms Creek Basin]. How can this be cheaper than nature's own gravity? Who picks up this expense? Answer: All of the residents of Blacksburg.”

I sent an email message, below, to William Aden on Tuesday morning, April 27, stating these actual comparative pumping costs, asking him to reply at his earliest convenience if he wished to clarify this matter.  He has not replied.  His staff told me he was in town.

In that email message, I also noted the disparity in general between his intimations that STEP/STEG costs were high versus the low actual STEP/STEG lifecycle cost data from municipalities nationwide, including Blacksburg and some of the country’s fastest growing cities.

As Blacksburg's vice mayor, Tom Sherman, noted, the issue of STEP/STEG is ancillary to the sewer decision at hand.  Yet Aden's gross misrepresentations about STEG costs, promoted with the veneer of authority, do not facilitate thoughtful decisions by Blacksburg residents.  - David Scheim
Below is the email of David Scheim to Bill Aden, cc the press, April 27 AM:

-----Original Message-----
From: David Scheim []
Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2004
11:49 AM
Cc: Gerry Davies; Mike Gangloff
Subject: STEP/STEG v. "gravity" sewer pumping costs

Dear William Aden:

You wrote on April 25, “Somewhere between 11 and 16 pump stations must be constructed and operated to accommodate the STEG-hybrid system [for the Toms Creek Basin]. How can this be cheaper than nature's own gravity? Who picks up this expense? Answer: All of the residents of Blacksburg.”

In fact, the Toms Creek Basin “gravity” sewer plan includes an enormous pump station to pump every drop of sewage from the bottom of the Basin up 200 feet to the wastewater treatment plant.  Its cost, actual construction bid, would be $2,352,000.  So much for “nature’s own gravity.”

The cost of the 11 to 16 pump stations to pump fluid STEG effluent in the STEG hybrid design is about $15,000 each.  This is the figure cited by engineers who install these systems, and is consistent with cost estimates provided in Blacksburg Town staff’s presentations to Council on July 15 and September 2, 2003 and as reported by Blacksburg to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on February 10, 2004.

Sixteen times $15,000 is $240,000, which is an order of magnitude less than $2.35 million.  In general, your intimations that costs of STEP/STEG systems are high contradict the low actual STEP/STEG lifecycle cost data from communities coast to coast, including some of the fastest growing cities in the nation, and Blacksburg.  Although, as Council member Tom Sherman noted, the issue of STEP/STEG is ancillary to the sewer decision at hand, this misrepresentation does not facilitate a thoughtful decision.

You were quoted as stating on April 21, “I’m definitely going to help [a pro-“gravity” sewer candidate] all I can.”  Providing accurate information on sewer pumping costs, however, might be an appropriate way to help the residents of Blacksburg.

I would appreciate any clarification you may care to provide concerning your quoted assertion on pump station costs at your earliest convenience.

Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

David Scheim



Presentation of Adele Schirmer to Blacksburg Town Council on May 27, 2003.  Click to download mp3.

Discussions, Town Council and Adele Schirmer, following this presentation, May 27, 2003.  Click to download mp3.



Princeton video on simulated election fraud on a Diebold electronic voting machine:

Princeton video