Gary Silcott of Stantec Engineering addresses Hillsboro city council Tuesday. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Gary Silcott of Stantec Engineering addresses Hillsboro city council Tuesday. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Hillsboro city council members, administrators and several members of the community attended a special meeting prior to the regular city council meeting Tuesday, Oct. 15, where they heard an update on plans to remedy an EPA violation that has affected the city for the past few years.

Safety and service director Dick Donley told council that the letter from the Environmental Protection Agency was due to “an issue at the sewer plant, where we had some issues with overflow and so forth.”

“We have heard from the EPA, and they wanted us to present a plan,” Donley said. “That’s why we wanted all of council here tonight because we wanted you to be on board from the get-go.”

Donley then introduced Gary Silcott of Stantec Engineering – a former interim safety and service director for the city who has served as a consultant for the city on numerous projects – who explained several issues that he felt needed to be addressed.

According to Silcott, “the city received an EPA letter wanting to know what their plan is to address some of the I&I [inflow and infiltration] issues that we have,” and while he said that the city has already made “some dent in the issue, we’ve not solved it.”

“The EPA is getting impatient, which is disheartening, but it’s not unusual,” Silcott said. “From my experience, as long as we’re working toward the end, usually they’re pretty flexible.”

Silcott said the city has already completed some rehab projects on several private properties in the city, with the south side of the city in particular having problems, with homes “that have downspouts and sump pumps that are tied into the sanitary sewer, which is not legal.”

Through their monitoring, the city has identified “a two-block area on South East Street where there’s 18 to 20 homes” that Silcott said are responsible for “100,000 gallons of I&I, which is clean water.”

“We thought that would be a great place to do a pilot project because we can go in and fix it, come back out, post-monitor, check it out and see what kind of results we’ve got,” he said. “With that kind of thing, we can go to the EPA and say ‘here’s what it was to start with – 100,000 gallons – and we replaced all the drains, put new laterals in, put sump pumps in, put it into the storm sewer where’s it’s supposed to go – and post-monitor and say it’s 50,000 gallons now, so we’ve cut it in half. Hopefully it’s better than that, but at least then we could show some results.”

Silcott said he thought this would be “a strong plan” to start addressing the issues in the city.

“If you put that into perspective, if we do 20 homes and right now they’re averaging about $6,500 apiece, let’s just say that’s $130,000,” Silcott said. “If we tried to replace the sewer and the laterals for that same two-block area, it would be way more than $130,000.”

However, along with that plan, Silcott recommended to council that they should consider legislation to give the city “teeth” to enforce the repairs in that area.

“The snag we’ve hit is the residents have not been as cooperative as we would like,” he said. “Some of them are a little skeptic. There’s concerned about ‘if you come to my house you’re going to find other things and start picking on that.’

“We’ve just not had much response.”

In addition to possible legislation to enforce the repairs – which he said would be a “last resort” – Silcott recommended “some PR” to try to build the residents’ trust, with “one-on-ones” to assure people there are “no repercussions if they let someone in the house.”

Another area that the city will be looking at is their finances and any repairs that can be made within their budget, Silcott said.

“There’s some other work that still needs to be done on your mainline systems,” Silcott said. “We’re getting ready to start construction on two projects right now to replace some trunk lines you have issues with.

“Right now, in the letter we got from the EPA, there’s about half a dozen at the treatment plant and half a dozen at the south lift station where there’s been so much flow they can’t handle it and they’re overflowing and going into the street. That’s not good.”

Silcott said that he believed the city’s best option would be to target the failing systems rather than spend the same amount of money on expanding the wastewater treatment plant, which underwent a multimillion-dollar upgrade in 2011.

“With flow monitoring and all that stuff, we can really pinpoint where the problems are,” Silcott said. “My mindset is instead of spending $16 million on the wastewater plant, let’s spend $16 million on your system that’s falling apart.

“To me, the best thing would be to put the investment in your collection system. Let’s get it fixed, let’s get the residents all fixed up.”

Silcott added that if the city were to make repairs for “everybody in the city of Hillsboro, it’s about $17.5 million,” which is only slightly higher than the cost of the last upgrade to the treatment plant.

The city has until the end of the month to respond to the EPA’s letter with their ideas, Silcott said. Council president Tom Eichinger then opened up the meeting to council for further questions and discussion.

Council member Brandon Leeth, who is also the chair of the utilities committee, asked if the city had tried to schedule a meeting with the residents in the targeted project area. Public works supervisor Shawn Adkins said the city has inspected some of the homes already but was struggling with scheduling conflicts between plumbers and homeowners for the bids process. As Silcott mentioned, another issue has been with residents’ distrust of the city, with several refusing inspections out of a fear the city will “condemn their house,” according to Adkins.

Leeth said they would have to rebuild citizens’ trust.

“I would hate to have to make an ordinance to do this,” Leeth said. “I would hope it wouldn’t come to that.”

Donley said he felt the city needed to have the ordinance as an option, even if they don’t necessarily use it, but agreed that he would rather try to work with the property owners first.

“The negative vibes out there are so much stronger than what we can put a positive inflection on things,” Donley said. “We’re here to work with you [the public], like Gary said.

“It’s not costing property owners anything, and in the long run it’s going to increase your property value. We’ve just got to sell this issue to the folks. I think most people in town are receptive, if you explain it to them.”

Later in the meeting, in response to Leeth’s concern about “forcing” participation, Silcott said that he thought the proposed legislation should specify that the city sent several certified notices before taking any action. “There’s always that one or two that just don’t want you in their house,” Silcott said. “To make this work, I think we need to have it.”

Silcott said the city would have to “find a way to get around the mistrust” citizens have but agreed relying on the legislation would be a “last resort.” “We don’t want to have a heavy hand, but we want to use it for people who will literally not cooperate,” he said.

Council member Justin Harsha suggested that “a phone call might go better” than a certified letter, which he said could be “scary” to some residents.

Hillsboro mayor Drew Hastings told council that “you’re never going to do a citywide project because people are going to do the right thing.”

“How do you accomplish furthering public infrastructure without an ordinance?” the mayor said. “You’re never going to do a citywide project because people are going to do the right thing. That just doesn’t happen.

“I think we’re thinking in terms of a 20-house pilot project when in reality, it’s going to be much bigger than that down the road. You’re going to have to have this ordinance anyway when you’re dealing with other parts in the city.”

Hastings said having the ordinance is “better for the property owner” as well as the city because it will give citizens “peace of mind” that the sewer and water issues are all the city is targeting.

Regarding the proposed improvements, Leeth said he has already met with representatives of the city’s treatment plant and knows “building a storage containment center is not solving anything” with all of the water that should not be in the system in the first place.

Council member Patty Day, who was appointed to city council in July, asked how the city determined the owners of the homes that are being targeted; how the owners were notified; how long it’s been since the “last attempt” to contact the owners.

City grant writer/administrative assistant Kirby Ellison said that the residences were pinpointed through GIS (geographic information system) mapping and that the city worked to ensure they were contacting the owners, not just tenants, of each respective property. They were all invited to schedule meetings to discuss the project, she said.

Day also asked how long this has been a problem. “Initially, the EPA violation — was that in 2017?” she asked.

“That’s when it started,” Silcott said.

Donley – who ended his most recent term on city council in December 2017 – told Day “we’ve known since I’ve been on council that we had I&I problems. We just didn’t have the money to fix them.”

“Now we’ve come up with the legislation for the stormwater utility that the property owners are going to be paying into,” Donley said. “It’s not a lot, but if we have to turn around and say we have to raise rates, what’s that make us look like, or you guys look like?”

Donley repeated that the city needs “more PR” to assure property owners that the city can be trusted. Council member Mary Stanforth responded “it’s going to be hard to change the perception because so many have had bad experiences with the inspector.” She suggested that citizens who have had the work done may be able to help “put a positive spin on this.”

“A lot of that falls on the shoulders of you guys,” Donley said to council, and suggested that council members speak to citizens in their own ward.

Eichinger said that he would put all of Silcott’s suggestions into the utilities committee for further consideration, while Silcott can give a tentative overview of the plans to the EPA.

“One thing’s for sure, it’s unanimous among everybody that we want to put the money and invest any money that’s spent into the collection system,” Silcott said. “The plant’s just fine, as long as we can get rid of the water.”