As another project goes over budget, Elkader Council debates mounting costs

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register



It’s a case of déjà vu for Elkader’s City Council, as another project exceeded its initial budget due to unforeseen complications. The latest project to suffer this fate is the replacement of the city sewer main from the intersection of Third Street and Plum Street NE.


According to Kim Werger, lead operator at PeopleService, Inc., the plan is to replace a section of the sewer main that has breaks and cracks in it, which allows tree roots to grow into the main. Debris catches on the roots and the rough areas of the main where it has chipped and cracked. When this debris catches, it can lead to the sewer main plugging. 


It was with this information that the council approved the project in August, originally budgeting $9,000 to replace 42 feet of sewer line. However, at a recent meeting, Werger informed the council an additional $12,000 was needed to complete the project, along with an additional 58 feet of line to do it correctly. 


The change in cost and scope of the project is due to unexpected deterioration of the sewer pipe since it was last televised or viewed with a camera about 14 months ago. 


Based on what the camera saw at that time, it was believed 42 feet of new pipe would prevent the constant plugging. But when the contractor started preparing for the project and requested the pipe be televised again, to show where the location of the private sewer services attached to the main, more deterioration was seen. This included more cracks and pieces of pipe missing further down the main than previously anticipated. 


According to Werger, the reason for the deterioration is unknown, most notably because no one knows how old the sewer main is, since Werger has been unable to find records regarding when it was installed. 


Werger noted, however, that several factors typically play a role in this type of deterioration, including what material it is made of, the amount of flow going through it, the ground shifting and how deep the frost goes during the winter. 


Regardless of what caused the deterioration over the last 14 months, the project grew in scope. Werger said the city could stick with the original 42 feet of pipe and put in the additional pipe next year, but that would put the council in a “cross your fingers” situation. 


The reason for this, explained Werger, is because “with the amount of increased deterioration we saw when we last televise it, the fear was that a lot more pieces of the sewer main could come lose and either cause a sewer main backup or even a total collapse of the sewer main.” 


Additionally, waiting another year to finish the project comes with the possibility of higher costs, as inflation and supply chain issues remain relevant. 


While the council weighed options, it opened the door to other conversations regarding the budget and available funds. This project would dip into local option sales tax funds because, according to Werger, there is no money in the sewer fund. 


Council member Peggy Lane asked if the city could pull back on projects in an effort to cover the added cost, noting how every project seems to come with unexpected problems. This idea prompted the notion that the city has possibly overextended itself on projects. 


Council member Randy Henning commented the city can’t keep shifting money around and would eventually have to “squeeze their belt.” 


City administrator Jennifer Cowsert rejected the idea, stating, “I wouldn’t say we are overextended.” 


As for the budget and squeezing the belt, Cowsert doesn’t believe there is a heavy strain on the budget, at least not as far as the current state of projects is concerned. 


“We have a certain number of projects that are budgeted. At this point with the projects, I am not aware of any others that have run into issues that would cause a project to be over budget. We have a tight budget, yes, as most cities do, but I would not characterize it as being strained in regards to these types of projects,” Cowsert said. 


Council member Deb Schmidt pondered where the city draws the line on projects and, more specifically, how projects are strategized. 


“I feel we try very hard to address each project as they come. It’s very hard to put what project is to be top priority—they all are. I feel the city has had some major breaks occur that looks and/or makes it look like we have taken on too much. But in any case, we are handling each as they come up,” Schmidt said. 


Cowsert responded, “Sometimes it feels as if the city is simply winging it and constantly playing catch-up on some of these projects. No, we are not winging it. We have a list of projects prioritized for the next five years.”


“Like many/most cities, we have aging infrastructure, so the list is very long and the revenue is limited.  For many years, 20 to 30 years ago, not much was invested in the water and sewer systems. Then, we were forced by the state to make major updates to both treatment systems, so that takes the funds we might have used on the collection or distribution systems, which the sewer project is part of,” Cowsert added. 


After debate concluded, the council unanimously approved the additional $12,000 Werger requested for the project, which was completed Oct. 28.


The ordeal had Schmidt questioning, in a separate interview, “when do we say stop?”


“This next year will be more of a determined cost/budget awareness for me. After watching the seasoned council members like Lane and Henning, seeing that sometimes your hands are just tied when it comes to approving…waiting has caused what we’re seeing now, so getting it done and maintaining is of importance,” Schmidt said.

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