No small change 

Residents organize to fight Mullan Road sewer costs

Norm and Ginny Schmautz have lived on Haven Heights Drive in the suburbs west of Missoula for ten years. They are both state employees who spend much of their spare time in their garage woodshop, making furniture to help pay for their home and their two acres of property. They are not typical activists, but their opposition to the Mullan Road Corridor Sewer Project has made them vocal critics of Missoula County. They have opposed the extension of the city sewer into their neighborhood for several months now by organizing their neighbors, writing letters to the editor, and even corresponding with the governor.

The Schmautzes have not been politicized because they dislike the government, or the sewer, or development. Rather, it has been a process sparked by a large and frightening number.

“We don’t believe any government agency has the right to come out here and say you’ve got to pay $26,000,” says Ginny Schmautz.

That is the official projected increase in taxes the Schmautzes are facing if the sewer project goes through. With additional connection costs, they believe the final figure will be closer to $35,000.

“If they’re going to address the needs of this valley, they can’t do it on the backs of a small number of people,” says Norm Schmautz.

The Schmautzes’ story is typical of the hundreds of residents of the Mullan Road corridor who have banded together to oppose the project. They were not able to stop it through the formal protest process, and now their only hopes are persuasion, the courts, or legislation.

Missoula County commissioners were expected to vote last week to begin the project, but instead voted to delay the vote for a month while they gather more information. Opponents want a delay of at least a year so the county can seek federal and state grants that will take the burden of funding the project off the residents. They dismiss the one-month delay as symbolic and meaningless, although it has given them time to take their organizing to a new level.

At a meeting at Hellgate Elementary School last week, about 300 residents showed up for the creation of the Mullan Road Coalition.

“This is a very grassroots campaign,” says Jim Mocabee, vice president of the group. Past meetings have drawn more than 500 people, he says, but those were “rhetoric” meetings. The focus now is on action and fundraising.

“The people that live in that area are not really wealthy,” Mocabee says. “We did tell everyone the meeting last night would be a working meeting and we would hit everyone up for money. It’s amazing that after telling them that how many showed up. It was a large cross-section of the area.”

Mocabee stresses that the group was not created to oppose the sewer itself.

“The sewer is not the issue,” he says. “It’s the funding and the planning, those are the primary issues.”

Commissioner Bill Carey, who along with Commissioner Jean Curtiss, is a supporter of the project, introduced the motion at last week’s meeting that delayed the final vote for a month.

“This was a way of saying, ‘We’ve heard you, folks, and we’ll make sure we’ve left no stone unturned in pursuing any kind of federal appropriations that are out there,’” Carey says.

Carey asked county staff to come up with more information on funding sources, construction and connection specifics, and on the priority of the project in the larger picture of the county’s growth policy.

At the meeting, Commissioner Barbara Evans, the one opponent of the project on the county board, read letters from Montana’s congressional delegation about the project. All three expressed concern that residents were bearing such a large tax burden. They wrote that they would work to find federal funds, although they cannot guarantee anything and the earliest the money would be available is late 2002.

Carey says the intervention of the congressional delegation did not influence his decision to seek a delay, and that the delay does not mark a change in his views. Carey and Curtiss have held firm to their position throughout the entire debate, despite fierce opposition. At last week’s meeting, they were accused, among other things, of treating their constituents like “ignorant sheep” and of giving the appearance of having a personal stake in the sewer project.

“Actually, the opposite is true,” says Carey, of the idea he might benefit from this project. “This is an unpopular vote, so why would any elected official do it? It could cost me my job if I chose to run again in a number of years, but I don’t think a responsible public official could allow that to become a reason.”

Carey says coming to a position on the project was obvious for him. The sewer system must be extended, he says, because septic tanks pollute groundwater and endanger public health. The project must be done now because any delay would give larger landowners in the district the chance to pull out of the project and build their own sewer systems, Carey maintains, thereby driving up the cost for residents. The county will continue looking for funds, but Carey does not believe it will ever get much cheaper for the residents.

County environmental officials say the sewer extension would hasten Missoula’s compliance with the Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program, a plan to deal with unnatural algae overgrowth in the Clark Fork River, which includes converting septic tanks to sewer systems.

Opponents of the sewer argue that it may be necessary but not right now, when residents have to bear so much of the tax burden. They point to the fact that the Mullan Road area was not cited as an immediate target area in the nutrient reduction program report

As for Carey’s claim that the project will only get more expensive, Ginny Schmautz, at least, is not won over.

“What difference does it make if it’s $35,000, $40,000, or $50,000?” she asks. “It’s way more than any of us can afford.”

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