Vader is entering the last leg of efforts to reclaim its water system, with new hookups perhaps closer on the horizon than previously believed.
During the April 2 Vader City Council Meeting, Mayor Ken Smith said talks with Lewis County to regain control of the Vader/Enchanted Water System have completed mediation and a memorandum of understanding will soon be ready for council approval.
"I wouldn’t declare that we came out victorious," he said of the mediation process, which was required after both entities missed a deadline of last June to agree on terms for a memorandum. "There was no winner. We both conceded a lot, which you will see."
Multiple issues were being contended between Vader and Lewis County, including the criteria Vader would need to fulfill before re-acquiring the system; whether Vader would retain its water rights to the Cowlitz River should they not get the system back; and if financial compensation would be due to the entity who eventually gave up control.
"There were strong feelings on both sides of the table," said Smith, "and there was a lot of give and take."
"Vader was able to grab as may areas as they possibly could," added Council Member Kevin Flynn, who was a party to the mediations along with Smith. "The limitations that are put on us now—and in the future—are going to be few."
Flynn said Vader will be expected to keep its financial and bookkeeping practices in order to re-acquire the system, as the system’s loss was associated with a $120,000 budgetary shortfall documented by the State Auditor’s Office in 2010. Investigators said payments to vendors were being approved by officials but not mailed by city staff over the course of several months and the bulk of the deficit came from such outstanding debts (though it was stated too many records were misplaced or destroyed to know where all of the discrepancy originated from). It was additionally clarified by auditors no current officials or staff working for Vader are suspected of wrongdoing in connection with the discrepancy.
After dramatically reducing staff and services to bring down costs, Vader has since passed both regular and surprise audits, and Flynn said keeping up such practices should result in Vader re-acquiring their water system within three to four years.
"It’s going to be a job for everybody on the City Council to make sure we do things properly," he said, adding that recently-appointed Council Member Linda Newton’s history as a Sewer/Water Commissioner for Skamokawa should ease concerns of critics who worry Vader does not have enough experience managing utilities.
But details of the expectations placed on Vader, as well as on Lewis County, have not yet been made public, as a final draft of the memorandum needs to be approved beforehand. Smith said the council will be given the arbiter’s draft at their next meeting and will be able to discuss the terms at length during executive session.
He added that the next meeting will also feature a discussion outlining a possible lift of the moratorium on water hookups, stating he has received information Vader may not have a moratorium in place at all.
A moratorium was mandated by the Department of Health in 2010, according to Smith, because of the significant leaks in Vader’s water system, which the city could not afford to fix at the time. As a result, the system was ordered by a judge into the stewardship of Lewis County to ensure it would be repaired and its customers able to receive safe drinking water.
During this time, Smith said he is certain a moratorium was placed on Vader given DOH’s insistence on the issue, but in speaking with Lewis County Department of Public Works Director Tim Elsea after the arbitration meeting, Elsea said he is not aware of any current moratorium on water hookups in Vader.
"I was puzzled by that disclosure because I had not ever heard that before," said Smith, stating he originally broached the subject with Elsea to talk about what could be done to lift the moratorium now that Lewis County has replaced a significant number of pipes in the system.
Smith has since directed city staff to research documents involved with the moratorium to confirm if it was ever
officially put in place and, as of the night of the meeting,
said he has not learned anything definitive. He told the council Elsea would be at the next meeting and, having done his own research, will speak about the current status of the moratorium.
"Right now I can tell the council with a certain degree of satisfaction that, if Tim Elsea is right, then we can declare that we have some wiggle room with regard to housing," said Smith, stating Elsea indicated there may be as many as 17 new hookups available within the city.
Present at the meeting that night, Cathi Read, of the Department of Commerce, said confusion regarding the status of the moratorium may have come from the fact that a short span of time passed between when DOH insisted a moratorium be approved and when the water system was handed over to Lewis County.
"I kind of lost track of what happened," said Read, stating Vader may be in a position to simply lift the moratorium from itself if it is found they were the entity to impose it. "It just may be you need to take it off."
Whether the moratorium is actual or supposed, a lack of water hookups has been inhibiting residential and industrial growth in Vader for the last few years, as well as holding up the city’s ability to meet it’s part of an agreement to trade an easement for water service to dig power lines to McMurphy Park. Flynn said, if extra hookups were available, it would be the shot in the arm Vader needs to begin to grow and create a new image for itself.
The next council meeting is scheduled for April 16 at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall. Those with questions or in need of accommodations may call (360) 295-3222.