Selbyville waiting for county on wastewater upgrade

Selbyville officials first came to the Sussex County Council with a request for upgraded wastewater outfall access nearly five years ago. At the time, the town – which owns and operates its own wastewater treatment plant – had already been granted an increase from 1 million to 1.5 million gallons per day of wastewater flow from its plant into the county’s wastewater outfall into the Atlantic Ocean.

Looking in 2004 at substantial anticipated future growth, Selbyville requested – and was then allocated – an additional half-million gallons of flow as part of the county’s planning process, up to 2 million gallons per day.

Five years later, the town is now ready to use some of that additional flow, and they’ve been working with county officials for some time on the contract that will formally allow them to use the county resource. But negotiating the terms of that contract has been difficult, leading town officials to appear before the council on Tuesday, Dec. 16, to formally request council members go on the record that they approve the additional flow.

Championed by Councilman Vance Phillips (R-4th-Laurel), who represents the Selbyville area on the council, the request met unexpected resistance from other council members last Tuesday, with Councilman George Cole (R-5th-Bethany Beach) and county staff agreeing in principle with the provision of the flow but objecting to Phillips’ recommendation that the county value the service according to a cost from 1997, based on a formula from the 1970s.

“This outfall was built for the South Coastal district,” Cole noted, referencing recent requirements for impact fees on coastal property owners when the county has expanded wastewater service in that area – Cole’s district. “What is the future for Selbyville?” he asked of Selbyville Mayor Clifton Murray and Town Manager Bob Dickerson. “Have you all been paying your fair share?”

County engineers have said the outfall is nowhere near reaching its theoretical capacity, and they expect its lifespan to run another 20 to 30 years. But maintenance and replacement costs were high on their minds, despite that.

With that issue in mind, Cole last Tuesday questioned the Selbyville officials regarding the town’s long-range plan for capacity and county staff regarding a future need for expansion of wastewater service at the beach.

On the issue of the town’s future wastewater plans, Murray noted that the town’s treatment plant will max out its capacity at that 2 million gallons, with its carrying pipe maxed out at 2 million gallons also. Anything more, he said, would require “a big upgrade.”

Cole again asked about the town’s plans after that 2 million gallons of capacity is exceeded. Dickerson replied that the town’s comprehensive plan included plans only for going up to the 2 million gallon level and had received state approval.

“We’ve planned for that, based on annexation and our reserve,” he said. “It may change in five years, with the new comprehensive plan.”

“You haven’t looked at the possibility the county won’t be there,” replied Cole. “You may want to plan early.”

Murray, wearing an expression Councilman Dale Dukes (D-1st-Laurel) would later describe as “surprise,” noted that Selbyville had “spent a lot of money upgrading our system on the predication that we had the 2 million gallon capacity. Mountaire is a big part of our use,” he emphasized of the town’s only industrial user for the wastewater system.

County staff urged caution, acknowledging that the two parties did need to come to an agreement but emphasizing that the 28-year-old cost model used had not been updated to account for capital costs.

Finance Director Susan Webb argued, “The formula needs to be updated to ensure it’s equitable. It won’t take long to update. But we need to make sure we’re covering our capacity in terms of what we’re giving away, in terms of cost.” Webb said she was comfortable with the council granting Selbyville the requested capacity and then letting staff negotiate costs.

But Phillips said he preferred to stick with the existing numbers and get the issue resolved that day. “We agreed in 2004 to up their capacity to 2 million gallons using the 1997 model. We should honor that,” he said.

Phillips said the one issue he felt needed to be ironed out in formalizing an agreement between the county and the town was how that 2 million gallons was being measured. “The minutes were silent as to whether that was peak or average,” he noted.

County Engineer Mike Izzo said numbers had been based on a seven-day average at the time the allocation of flow was made for the town in the 2004 study.

With that established, Phillips said he felt the county should merely update the cost based on today’s dollars. “Cost is everything,” he said, recommending that the county use the same formula from 1997.

“We also have a responsibility to run these sewer districts, and in the South Coastal district, those people pay for everything,” responded Cole. “We can’t do this in a way that will hurt those people. We’re stewards (of the sewer district).”

“If the previous model was fair in 1997, it should be today,” Phillips countered.

“We can give them the capacity,” Cole replied. “But we need the time to update the terms if we’re going to be responsible. I don’t see how, in going back to 1997, we are being responsible.”

Izzo noted that his department still needed to do hydraulic testing to determine the actual – not theoretical – capacity of the outfall, as a way of helping to determine future upgrade needs, before the cost to the town could be formalized. But he also noted that he was confident that the 30-year-old outfall still had good integrity and would not need replacement for decades to come based on its condition.

Webb, for her part, proposed that the Selbyville agreement be modeled on an existing on in Blades, in which the county gets a portion of sewer connection fees to pay for outfall capacity.

The wrangling over the cost was not something the Selbyville officials had expected, and continued delay while a proposed cost is calculated also wasn’t what they’d hoped for last Tuesday.

“When we were up here in 2004, this wasn’t mentioned,” said Murray. “We need to know that number. To leave this thing wide open…”

That prompted Phillips to recommend an upper limit be adopted for the cost to the town, not to exceed $75,000. But Cole said he favored waiting on any numbers, for a week or two, until staff could make their calculation.

Phillips said he was concerned about any delay, however, as the Dec. 16 meeting was the final one for three retiring members of the council. When the council holds its next meeting, Cole, Phillips and three new members will have the vote on whether to extend the additional capacity and how much it will cost the town. He again recommended approval of the expanded capacity, with a cost based on the original formula.

“The people who live in coastal Sussex County are all paying that,” Cole said again of impact fees. “Let’s come up with a model where everybody is paying that.”

Dukes said he was not comfortable with approving the additional capacity until it was known what Selbyville would be paying. Murray was in agreement on that subject, but Cole urged patience.

“You may like the new model better,” he suggested to Murray.

“I know this is a surprise to you all,” Dukes replied. “I know you thought you came here to get an agreement. And I’m a firm believer that when you enter into an agreement with somebody and then they go back and try to change the price…”

That sentiment garnered some movement on the issue, with council finally voting unanimously to approve the additional capacity, based on a seven-day average. The cost was to be negotiated between the town and the county engineering department.

Outgoing Council President Finley Jones was to shepherd the agreement to its conclusion prior to Dec. 31, when he and two other longtime council members will officially retire. It will become official with Jones’ signature on the finished agreement.