• John McGary, Woodford Sun Editor

Traugott enthusiastic about state water, sewer task force

There’s an old saying about politicians of every stripe and at every level: “When a tough decision needs to be made, appoint a commission or task force.” Cynics might argue that’s what the Kentucky General Assembly did this year when it created a task force that includes Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott as a member. Traugott, however, suggested some good may come of it. He attended the first meeting of the 21-member Public Water and Wastewater System Infrastructure Task Force Wednesday, July 24, in Frankfort. Traugott, a longtime legislative aide to House Democratic leaders, was the selection of the Kentucky League of Cities, for which he is second vice president. However, his appointment likely had more to do with Versailles’s recent investments in wastewater and water treatment upgrades, for which the city received no grants or other government assistance. Four task force members were appointed by House and Senate leaders (two from each party), while the Kentucky Association of Counties, Kentucky Public Service Commission, Kentucky Area Development Districts, Kentucky Municipal Utilities Association and other groups also sent representatives. The four-page bill notes there are 450 public drinking water systems in the state serving more than 95 percent of the population and that most citizens are connected to a regional wastewater service. (Versailles has its own sewer treatment plant that’s undergone a $20 million rehabilitation and upgrade and has spent about $7.5 million on improvements to its wastewater collection system the last few years. The new sewer plant should be operating by the end of the year, according to Traugott.) The day after the task force’s first meeting, Traugott summed up its mission this way: “(To) look over options on maintaining and improving our water and wastewater infrastructure systems.” Traugott said the first meeting was primarily an overview of water and wastewater challenges across the state, with the director of the state Division of Water and a deputy secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet briefing members on shortfalls. “The numbers they threw out were just mind-boggling,” Traugott said, referring to the amount of money projected to be needed for meeting basic sewer and water standards across Kentucky. “Wastewater, $6.2 billion over the next 20 years; drinking water, $8.2 billion over the next 20 years.” Traugott said he, other city officials, and even the clerks who take payments for water and sewer service got “our share of pushback” after the city council passed an ordinance paying for the sewer upgrades with 18.5 percent annual sewer rate hikes from 2016-2018. (Water portions of the bill were unaffected.) “Other cities have neglected (investing in water and wastewater improvements), and it’s a hard thing to do, obviously, because you have to tinker with rates in order to pay for investments, and people tend to not appreciate underground infrastructure. Water is pretty necessary for human life; treated sewage is necessary for human life and recreation; it’s just quality of life – you don’t want raw sewage pumping into the river.” He credited his predecessor, Fred Siegelman (now a city council member), for investments made in the city’s water treatment plant under Siegelman’s leadership. Traugott said the national discussion about infrastructure has centered on roads and bridges and airports, but, “from our perspective, water and wastewater are as (important), if not more important.” Traugott said the task force has meetings scheduled for August and September, but the clock is ticking. The bill establishing the group notes that it “may submit findings, legislative recommendations, or a memorandum to the Legislative Research Commission (LRC) by Dec. 15, 2019. If legislative recommendations are submitted, the LRC may refer the recommendations to the appropriate committee or committees … by Dec. 20, 2019 …” Whether any proposals from the group or local officials will receive serious consideration by the General Assembly is unknown. Traugott suggested pleas for state help could be seen as “welfare for utilities that were irresponsible. …” However, despite the state government facing pension and other financial challenges, the task force’s work could help shine a light on serious problems and may convince lawmakers to help in some fashion, Traugott said. “If there is assistance, there should be the strictest of accountability that these (government and utility leaders) will run their finances correctly … and do the technical things necessary to maintain their system,” he said. “It’s one of those situations, you either spend it now or spend it later, and it’s not going to get cheaper.”

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