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
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, www.tcbsewer.org] 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.
days after council's vote, the town manager
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
www.tcbsewer.org). [Engineering tasks
associated with construction were also
charted on a time-line stretching from February 2000 through September
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.)
statement: Blacksburg “intends to construct ..."
Cost sheets, pp.
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
Cost sheets, pp.
providing a detailed breakdown of engineering costs in the post-design phases
into 87 line items.
Project Schedule, pp.
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.
charted on a time-line stretching from February 2000 through September
Appendix A1, Scope of Services, pages
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
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.
$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
Following the submission of this PER to DEQ, DEQ engineer Dan Scott wrote a
memo to Anderson and Associates engineer
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
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  PER at 8% of the estimated construction costs.
Since the  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
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.
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
(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
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
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
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.”
for the audio file.
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
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
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,
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
sewer's $2,346,000 pumping cost
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.
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:
From: David Scheim
Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Cc: Gerry Davies; Mike Gangloff
Subject: STEP/STEG v. "gravity" sewer pumping costs
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
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.
$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
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.
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
appreciate any clarification you may care to provide concerning your quoted
assertion on pump station costs at your earliest convenience.
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