An end to the First St. pipe replacement debate could be on the horizon in Winlock, but efforts may come too little too late to accept a repaving grant from the Transportation Improvement Board (TIB), which was dependant on completion of the project.
Mayor Glen Cook stated during the April 22 Winlock City Council Meeting he believes the city may miss its opportunity to accept a $76,500 grant awarded by TIB in November of 2011. Cook said TIB has gone out of its way to continue offering the grant in light of the council’s insistence against passing a resolution accepting the funds, and said Winlock may be barred from applying for future TIB grants for at least 10 years if TIB withdraws their offer.
When TIB approved the grant application to repave First St. between Alder St. and Rice St., it was on the condition the aging pipes under that section would be replaced so the new pavement would not be disturbed in the near future. Though the council was first asked to accept the grant Dec. 27, 2011, they declined due to a lack of available costs estimates to complete the pipe replacement project, with Council Member Denise Green stating the budget for 2012 was already set and did not have room for additional expenditures.
At that time, Cook said he would speak with TIB about extending the approval timeline for the grant, and later reported to the council TIB would be willing to wait until November, 2012, for the council to pass a resolution of approval.
When November rolled around, the council was engaged in a debate about whether or not to include pressure-reducing valves for each water hookup affected by the project, as well as disputes regarding the city’s anticipated use of public rights-of-way though private yards and whether or not water meters were being installed according to public health standards. Cook’s contention has been the valves are not needed, the rights-of-way are being used legally, and no water meters have been installed contrary to code (the latter of which was confirmed by the Lewis County Department of Health after Green complained to them of violations Dec. 17.)
It was not until Feb. 11 when council members were again asked to approve the grant, at which time they refused to vote on the resolution, with Council Member Dennis Korpi stating the replacement project had yet to be completed according to expectations. Cook again asked the council to consider grant approval April 22, which they declined on the grounds they needed more information about their options regarding the valves.
Council members had been advised by City Attorney Mark Scheibmeir during the meeting to seek input from Public Works employees before counting the valves in or out, stating the deciding factor is whether or not installing the valves at each hookup would be of general benefit to the city. If installing them would only benefit private homeowners, he said, then buying them with public funds would constitute an act of gifting and would violate state law.
"What we’re ending up doing is having a lot of lay-people make technical decisions," he said, stating the Auditor’s Office would need to have the input of a water/sewer professional to justify the cost of the valves and their installation. "I think what you need is your Public Works Department to provide you with an explanation and, from them, you can then decide if there is, or is not, public benefit or if this is strictly a personal benefit."
Cook said Water/Sewer Superintendent Dennis Baker has already provided a written statement to the council, which Cook read into the record April 8, stating the valves would not be necessary or cost-effective to install. During the same meeting, Public Works Superintendent Gregg Robinson said past practice under previous superintendents has been to install the valves with every hookup installation, though he was not personally in support of their installation and conceded it was up to the council to determine if the valves were to be purchased or not.
When the issue of past practice was brought up April 22, Scheibmeir said the council would still need a professional opinion to justify the expense to the Auditor’s Office, stating the rationale used by previous employees would need to be clarified.
"It all depends on the reasons and if there is a factual basis for it," he said, adding the city can still pay for meters if it is determined only a neighborhood—not the entire city—would benefit from their installation, though council members living within that neighborhood would not be allowed to vote on the issue due to conflicts of interest.
The council resolved to ask members of the Public Works Department to weigh in on the issue at their next meeting, though Cook protested they have already shared their input and the council should not expect to learn anything new. Green suggested Baker may have provided his statements under fear of being fired as he is still within a probationary hiring period and suggested former employee Gary Lacy be asked to speak to the council, though this suggestion did not receive a reply from Cook.
The council is expected to discus the valves further during their next meeting May 13, though as of press time Cook said he was unable to indicate if this would be too late to approve the grant as TIB has not given him a firm deadline. In regard to the testimony of employees, Scheibmeir advised the council should seek enough information to make a comfortable decision.