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Belmont balks at costly bonds as it evaluates needs for sewer upgrades

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Belmont is having a hard time digesting millions of dollars in proposed sewer improvements on its decades-old sewer lines. The City Council balked this week at issuing about $18.5 million in new 30-year bonds to rehabilitate pipes and make repairs, which would cause an estimated 8 percent rate increase. Several council members wanted more evidence of the immediate need for the work.

Vice Mayor Dave Warden cited a staff report saying sewer rates — currently averaging about $550 annually for a homeowner — could nearly triple during the next 20 years to fund improvements.

“Frankly, I don’t know, myself, how important these capital projects are, how critical they are, how quickly they need to get done,” Warden said at the council meeting.

The concern comes as Belmont and three other agencies encompassing 200,000 customers in southern San Mateo County are in the midst of a massive $339 million, 10-year plan to fix up their shared regional sewer infrastructure.

The South Bayside System Authority — which runs a treatment plant owned by Redwood City, San Carlos, Belmont and the West Bay Sanitary District — has taken out $65 million in bonds so far, mostly for fixes to the 25-year-old treatment facility, said General Manager Daniel Childs.

“We’re doing the big backbone and the treatment side,” said Childs. “[Cities] have the day-to-day collection side, the sewer lines that are in the city streets, the smaller pump stations that pump to us.”

Roughly $8.5 million of Belmont’s bonds would go to local projects.

“I’d hate it if we had to spend several hundred thousand dollars on a fine because we didn’t fix a problem that could cost us a lot less,” said Councilor Warren Lieberman, who supported the bonds.

Redwood City is budgeting about $2.1 million for local sewers in 2011, said building department Director Chu Chang. San Carlos is still gauging its long-term local sewer costs, though it expecting to raise rates in March to fund its share of the regional project, said Public Works Director Robert Weil.

Sewer share

Each agency in the South Bayside System Authority is responsible for part of the cost of the $339 million improvement project, based on their sewer flow capacity.

Belmont: 8.8%
San Carlos: 13.8%
West Bay Sanitary: 23.7%
Redwood City: 53.7%

Source: SBSA

sbishop@sfexaminer.com