Cost estimates to upgrade the Maury Service Authority’s water treatment plant have shot up $12 million from a few months ago. (Arnold photo)

By Andrew Arnold

Lexington’s city manager says residents can expect their water bills to increase “painfully high” because of skyrocketing costs to modernize the city’s drinking water and wastewater treatment plants.

City Council Member Charles Aligood broke the news to council earlier this month that the price tag to upgrade the drinking water treatment plant had exploded to $32 million. He also estimated that the cost to update the city’s wastewater treatment plant would be about twice as much.

The new estimate for the drinking water plant shocked city officials. Six months ago, the Maury Service Authority told City Council that renovating the drinking water treatment plant would cost $20 million.

“It was a guess probably more than a calculation,” City Manager Jim Halasz said in an interview. “To miss the target by as much as they missed it, I’m sorry, I could do that, and I’m not an engineer.”

The drinking water treatment and wastewater plants provide services to residents of Lexington, as well as parts of Rockbridge County.

Aligood, who is a member of the authority’s board, said the proposal to upgrade the drinking water treatment plant skyrocketed 60% in part because infrastructure repair is in high demand. Cities and towns across the nation are spending federal funds they received through the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in 2021. As a result, there are more infrastructure projects underway, and that’s driving up the costs of labor and materials.

Aligood said Lexington’s water plants fell into disrepair because its managers didn’t follow industry practices by conducting regular preventative maintenance programs. When problems are identified as soon as possible, they’re likely to be cheaper to fix, he said.

“I think it’s a direct result of a lack of good management practices,” Aligood said. “What happened over time with both plants is they shifted over to operating, I call it, by crisis, when it broke.”

To fix the drinking water treatment plant, the Maury Service Authority’s proposal calls for the city to spend $15 million the first five years of construction, $11 million in the next five years, and $6 million in the last five.

Aligood expects a similar three-phase plan for upgrading the wastewater treatment plant. An engineering firm is working on an estimate to present to City Council in the coming weeks, he said.

The upgrades to the treatment plants aren’t the only multimillion-dollar projects that Council is dealing with. The other projects include renovations to City Hall, expansion of the Rockbridge Regional Jail, and upgrades to the Rockbridge County High School.

“It’s the type of thing you can’t put off,” Halasz said. “The community needs these things, and it’s our role at this point to provide it for future generations.”

He said the city is working with financial planners to figure out how and where to find the money to pay for the modernizing the water plants. That plan is expected in the next two to three months.

Halasz said the financial planners may recommend a combination of raising taxes, increasing water bills, borrowing money through a bond issue, and drawing from savings that the city has.

“We wouldn’t set anything in stone as far as a tax increase or as far as borrowing goes,” he said. “We’ll have to address those things when the time arrives.”

Water pumps sit on the bottom floor of the Maury Service Authority’s water treatment plant. The plant has operated in “crisis mode” for years, Council Member Charles Aligood said. (Arnold photo)

Jordan Combs, executive director of the Maury Service Authority, said he faced several challenges from the day he took over managing the plants in 2018. He said the authority needs to take a more proactive approach to keeping the plants operating efficiently.

“We’ve got to get up to ground zero,” Combs said. “We’ve got to get to the point where the systems are maintainable.”

The Rockbridge area depends on the two plants. There is no other source of water treatment if one of them shuts down or fails to meet standards, Aligood said. Lexington has some clean water stored for emergencies. But he said it wouldn’t last for more than a week.

Lexington resident David Wells said higher water bills would strain his finances. “Especially when you’re raising three kids, and you’re a single dad, it definitely frustrates things,” he said.

Aligood said the city doesn’t have a choice but to renovate both water plants.

“Just imagine,” he said, “this area can’t stand to have either of those plants not work.”

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