La Center delays vote on Cowlitz sewer deal

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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The La Center City Council delayed its expected vote on a multimillion-dollar sewer agreement with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe until next month in order to allow more time for public comment, officials said.

Opponents of the city’s proposed deal with the tribe pointed to the item being on Monday’s agenda as proof city officials and the council are trying to force the deal through without giving residents a chance to share their opinions.

The proposed 20-year deal between La Center and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe would allow the tribe to use the city’s soon-to-be expanded wastewater treatment system and extend the city’s sewer lines to the Interstate 5 junction. La Center annexed its way to the junction in September.

The council was expected to vote on the agreement Monday, but instead left the public record open for written comment until the close of business on Wednesday, Dec. 7. The council pushed the vote back after questions were raised about the benefit of holding a vote just three days after the public became aware of the tentative deal.

The council is now expected to vote on the agreement Dec. 14.

John Bockmier, a public affairs consultant who represents the La Center cardrooms, questioned why the city waited until Nov. 18 to release a draft of the proposed agreement with the tribe. With an agreement this important to the city’s future, residents should have been provided more time to digest the potential deal, he said.

“There’s no question this was inappropriate with regards to public comment and review,” Bockmier said Friday. He added, “Candidly, if I would not have spoken about it at the meeting, they would have voted for it.”

The city posted notice of the hearing in local newspapers more than two weeks prior to it taking place, said Jeff Sarvis, La Center’s public works director. City officials provided Bockmier information about the proposed deal the day after he requested it, Sarvis added.

The disagreement over how much advance notice the city should have provided came down to a matter of “perspective,” Sarvis said, noting he did not have a problem with the council’s decision to push back its vote.

“I’ve always thought this was a good agreement for the city and the tribe,” the public works director said. “If you can receive more comments, that’s good.”

Mayor Jim Irish and Mayor Pro-Tem Al Luiz did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Friday afternoon.

The agreement between the city and tribe, should the council sign it, will ultimately be contingent on whether a federal court allows the tribe to use 152 acres of federal land to build a casino. Clark County, the La Center cardrooms and several other entities filed a suit in federal court to stop the tribe from building the casino.

Cowlitz Indian Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall said this week he doubted the ruling would come before 2012.

Under the proposed deal, the tribe would pay the city $6.6 million to double its wastewater capacity, around $5.7 million to build a sewer line to the junction and around $2 million to update planning for the sewer lines, Sarvis said. The tribe would have the option to buy another $4.3 million worth of wastewater capacity, he added.

As a result of the agreement, La Center would be able to pay off millions of dollars in wastewater treatment facility-related debt, provide sewer lines to 471 acres of recently added commercial and residential real estate and charge residents less for sewer services because it now has more customers, city officials said.

Likewise, the tribe would receive much-needed sewer services for its 3,700 members and its commercial enterprises (i.e., the proposed casino), Iyall said.

The city invested $13 million in upgrades to its wastewater treatment facility over the past 18 months. The city received a $10 million loan from the Public Works Trust Fund repayable over a 20-year period. The tribe’s $6.6 million buy-in to the facility will allow for the city to pay off its debt quicker, Sarvis said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.