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How Many Leftists Does It Take to Build a Sewer?
Jul 10, 2013
Two summers ago, I opened this "From the Left" column by wondering if I'm really the leftist folks think I am.
Forty-nine columns later, I return to the question of my political ambidexterity in the context of the only elected political position ever entrusted to me: a seat on the Lake Herman Sanitary District board.
Actually, "elected" and "entrusted" are exaggerations. I was appointed to the board in 2005. I've gone through two election cycles, and no one has ever run to replace me. So I've never been elected, and I've probably been less entrusted than unnoticed.
Regardless, I'm part of a governmental entity that can tax, spend, and use eminent domain to address wastewater issues. Practically, the Legislature created sanitary districts back in 1947 to allow rural neighborhoods to build central sewer systems. Here in Lake County, Lake Madison has built a central sewer. Brant Lake is building its first central sewer right now. But in 30-plus years, Lake Herman residents have never worked up the cash or consensus necessary to replace their individual septic tanks with a shared sewer system.
The main obstacle has always been cost. The sanitary district just commissioned a feasibility study that found building a central sewer for Lake Herman would cost around seven million dollars. Divide that cost among 124 current households and another 40-some neighboring places we could annex, and the cost per household would be a $5,000 hook-up fee followed by monthly sewer bills of $261.
Sanitary districts often get grant and loan assistance from the state and federal governments for sewer projects. But however the burden might be divided between local effort and state/federal aid, somebody's tax dollars would be paying for a seven-million-dollar project to serve about 170 households around one lake. For perspective, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources just awarded $4.9 million in grants and loans for wastewater and other environmental projects serving thousands of users in a dozen South Dakota communities.
Put on your stereotypical leftist-vision goggles, see spending tax dollars to replace individual septic tanks with centralized infrastructure, and you should think, "Holy cow! Leftists should love sanitary districts!"
Yet I've opposed building a central sewer for Lake Herman since joining the board. Individual septic systems cost maybe $5,000 to install. After that, there is no monthly bill. Pumping out a septic tank (it does fill up with yucky stuff) costs about $200. Most households should pump their tanks every two or three years. Septic tanks should last for 20 years. If Lake Herman had $7 million, we could build and maintain individual septic tanks for every property around the lake for over 100 years.
In rural areas, properly installed and maintained septic systems can treat household wastewater safely and more efficiently than a central sewer. So on the Lake Herman Sanitary District board, I've been the fiscal conservative advocating individual solutions over bigger government. I've adamantly opposed the idea of imposing a central sewer on all residents (when a sanitary district builds a sewer, residents cannot opt out) and using eminent domain to take property for pipes and holding ponds.
I've always voted on sanitary district issues on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds. But apply your ideological lenses to my opposition to building a central sewer at Lake Herman, and you tell me: am I still a leftist? Am I turning back into a right-winger?
Or am I just a cheapskate trying to avoid a big sewer bill?
Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a right-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard every other Monday on this site.
Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and has taught math, English, speech, and French at high schools East and West River.