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Navy says ‘maybe’ to Oak Harbor city sewer project partnership

Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley didn’t get the answer he was expecting this week from Navy officials, but he did manage to ruffle some military feathers.

Navy and Oak Harbor officials met Monday to talk about whether the base will become a customer of the city’s planned sewage treatment facility.

The Navy’s answer was less than definitive: maybe.

“I’m not here to deliver good news or bad news today,” Capt. Mike Nortier, commanding officer of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, said.

“I’m here to frustrate you a little,” he joked with city officials.

Nortier and other Navy officials said they couldn’t sign on to the city’s proposal to provide sewage treatment for the Navy base, but they said they were still hoping to work out a deal. They provided the city with a list of issues they needed to have resolved before a decision could be made.

City officials pledged to work with the Navy to provide answers.

Administrator Larry Cort said afterward that the city will likely need an answer from the Navy in January or it will have to go ahead on its own.

The city currently partners with the Navy for sewage treatment. The city runs the Navy-owned treatment lagoons, which are running out of capacity. City officials plan to build a new treatment plant, which is estimated to cost more than $90 million if the Navy is involved.

City officials want to continue the partnership with the Navy since it would lessen the burden on city ratepayers by about $6 a month.

While Monday’s meeting was cordial, Councilwoman Beth Munns claimed Navy officials “weren’t happy” they didn’t know ahead of time that it was a public meeting. They expected it to be a private meeting with city officials, but Mayor Scott Dudley turned it into a public meeting and had it taped for TV.

She said Nortier wasn’t notified until just before the meeting by a member of city staff; she didn’t even know until she arrived to find the microphones.

“I was not happy about that,” she said. “That’s not how you treat a partner.”

Mike Welding, public affairs officer for the base, released a statement from Navy officials: “NAS Whidbey Island officials value our relationship with Oak Harbor and its elected officials and hope that future arrangements between the city and base are communicated more clearly to avoid surprises.”

Munns said Dudley upset Navy officials earlier by providing the Whidbey News-Times with an early draft of a Navy consultant’s report on the city’s sewage treatment plant proposal.

Dudley, however, said the public has a right to know.

“I have no doubt council will continue to fault me for being open and transparent,” he said.

Dudley invited the council members to the meeting with the Navy a week beforehand. Under state law, the meeting had to be public if a quorum is present.

Munns, however, said the decision to videotape the meeting was counterproductive; Nortier had hoped for a informal discussion about the Navy’s specific concerns, she said.

Nevertheless, everyone at the meeting expressed optimism that an agreement can be worked out.

Nortier said there’s a lot of reasons the Navy would not want to run its own sewage treatment plant, but he can’t commit under the city’s current proposal.

“We’re certainly hopeful we can reach a yes,” he said.

Munns agreed.

“The door is certainly open,” she said.

Councilman Rick Almberg said his responsibility is to the city’s ratepayers, but he suggested creative ideas for setting aside capacity in the plant without costing the residents extra.

Dudley said the biggest obstacle he sees is that the base doesn’t have money budgeted for large capital projects, such as the conveyance system necessary to bring the Navy sewage to the plant. He said city staff is looking into a way for the city to build the system and then recoup the costs from the Navy through rates for sewage service.

“I haven’t written off the Navy as a future partner,” he said. “I think we have time for one last proposal.”

 

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