Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Oak Lodge voters to weigh in on merger between water, sewer districts


Residents of Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge will vote May 17 on the proposed consolidation of special districts that provide sewer and water services to the area.

Last week, by a 3-0 vote of the Oak Lodge Sanitary District and 3-2 vote of the Oak Lodge Water District boards, elected officials referred the consolidation question to voters. OLWD board members Dick Jones and Leonard Waldemar voted against referring the proposal to the May 17 ballot.

OLSD board President Terry John Gibson said it should be an easy choice for voters to create efficiencies of scale that would save the districts at least $425,000 annually. Although a merger wouldn’t mean smaller bills, Gibson said that customers can expect any rate increases to remain constant with inflation, avoiding the large rate hikes of the past.

“That would allow us to stay at a (constant) rate as we go for smaller projects, and most of our large projects are done,” Gibson said.

What’s expected to happen if voters approve the proposal:

1. Ratepayers would receive only one bill from the combined districts, reducing paperwork.

2. Remodeling would have to occur at the water district headquarters to accommodate all the employees, and the sanitary district headquarters a couple blocks away would go on the market. Proceeds from the sale of that building would go to sanitary capital funds.

3. The employees’ transition team would be led by OLWD General Manager Dan Bradley; Jason Rice, OLSD’s manager of planning and engineering would be Bradley’s second-in-command.

4. The nonunionized OLWD employees would have the opportunity to join the same union of OLWD employees.

5. Both district boards would hold separate meetings in June to conduct regular business, and then they would hold a joint meeting to choose among the 10 current board members, five of whom would sit on the new consolidated board. The water district represents a slightly larger number of ratepayers, so three of the current OLWD board members will be appointed, while only two would come from OLSD. All would have to run for election next May, half on two-year terms and half for four-year terms.

DHM Research called 300 ratepayers, and more than 60 percent thought it was a good idea to merge. Seventeen out of the 19 people in DHM’s focus group came out in favor of the proposal.

“Almost everyone we talked with says this is the greatest idea we’ve come up with,” Gilbson said. “With the most basic education about the problem, polling shows that almost everyone will be in favor of it.”

Opponents of the measure have adopted the slogan, “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.” Oak Grove resident Thelma Haggenmiller, a member of OLSD’s sanitary sewer community advisory committee, will be campaigning against the measure.

“The $400,000 future savings, conservative or not, will never be realized by the ratepayers except to be told that their rates won’t increase as fast as they would without consolidation,” Haggenmiller said.

She and other opponents would rather see the districts merge by forming an “authority,” which under state law would prevent nearby cities from annexing the unincorporated area.

“We could go for an authority right now, but it’s not a sure thing, and cities would have some sway,” Gibson said. “But if we get a wide margin on the consolidation vote, then we’ve done all our due-diligence and we just go to the county and apply for one.”

“They have their cart before their horse,” Haggenmiller said. “There is nothing that says this is a first step to an authority.”

Gibson acknowledged that it’s been difficult for the two boards to work together, but he argued that now’s the time for voters to tell them how it would work.

“They couldn’t be more different organizations, but we’ve been able to bring them together over the years,” Gibson said. “Because the stars are aligning, and we have three highly paid administrators retiring around the same time, we can save a lot of ratepayer money without laying off any employees.”