Absarokee Water Board hopefuls talk water project

By: 
Mikaela Koski

Last Thursday, the Absarokee Civic Club held a forum for the candidates in the upcoming Absarokee Water and Sewer District Directors election.

All six candidates, as well as about two dozen citizens, gathered at the Cobblestone to discuss some of the issues relevant to the board. During the two-hour forum, the candidates answered prepared questions from a moderator, as well as questions from the crowd.

The following is a representation of the answers given.

MEET THE CANDIDATES

Mike Reynolds has been a member of the Absarokee community for more than 30 years, spending a combined total of 20 of those years as the Absarokee schools superintendent. Reynolds served on the Water Board in the past, and he is a current member seeking reelection.

Reynolds said the current board has done a lot of things right, and he is running to try to keep the board intact and see the water project through to completion.

Mike Borseth has been in the Absarokee area for about 20 years, and has varied work experience, including underground mining. He previously served on the Water Board, but he had to resign the position due to personal reasons.

Borseth said he is running for a position on the Water Board because he is concerned about the retired people of the area. He said those on fixed incomes will not be able to afford their water bills soon, and he wants to stand up for those people.

Roger Nummerador is a Lewistown native with navy and carpentry experience. He moved to Absarokee in 2013, and is a current member of the board seeking reelection. He is certified in water distribution.

Nummerador explained that, “for me, you serve for the people you live with.” He is running for re-election because he knows that the Absarokee water system is in bad shape. Nummerador believes the board’s current plan will fix many of the problems, and he would like to remain in his position to see it through.

Pete Gaustad is an Absarokee native with a degree in electrical engineering and an extensive career with the army, during which he “managed complex facilities.” He moved back to Absarokee in 2008. Pete holds a water system operator certificate with the DEQ and has been involved with the Water Board in the past.

He says he is running because he believes the board is currently dysfunctional and lacks the necessary procedures to effectively function. He commended the current operator, but Pete said the operator lacks training, and he would help the operator gain training and work to create procedures to help the operator with his job.

Alan Rohde is originally from Glasgow, and he owned and operated a ranch for many years. He has been in Absarokee for more than a decade, and is currently a member of the Water Board seeking re-election.

Rohde is running because water loss has been a serious problem for the last 20 years in Absarokee. He hopes to continue working to rebuild the town’s system to create a strong infrastructure to hold Absarokee together.

Karl Gaustad is Pete Gaustad’s brother, and has lived in Absarokee for his entire life. He has had experience working with the water board when it was an association, as well as the current district.

Karl said he is running to help the community and see if the board can get things done. He feels the current board has not listened to past boards, and that is causing problems.

THE PROJECT

For the last three years, the Water Board has worked on a multi-million dollar project to replace old, out-dated water main pipes across the town of Absarokee. According to the forum’s moderator, 70 percent of treated water in Absarokee is leaking out of the pipes and back into the ground.

The project, set to begin at the end of May, dominated the majority of the questions at the forum. Candidates explained their support or opposition to the project, how to tackle rising water bills, and whether, if elected, they would work toward or try to block the project.

Reynolds supports the project. He explained that the board completed an application for the state and received a $500,000 Treasure State Endowment Program (TSEP) grant for the project. In addition, the project has been granted $500,000 loan forgiveness, so while the board must borrow $3.5 million for the project, they must only pay back $3 million. He said the town followed the proper procedures throughout the process.

Reynolds trusts the engineers working on the project, and said replacing 17,000 feet of old, leaking steel pipe will help the town immensely.

“We can wait another 20 years, maybe, but what happens when you turn on the spigot and there’s no water?” Reynolds asked.

As for the rising water bills, Reynolds said he is concerned for those who cannot afford the larger bill. He proposed the creation of some kind of water bill assistance fund, noting that “the community is phenomenal about supporting people in the community.”

Reynolds said he would see the project through to completion, mentioning that a cohesive board is more effective because all of the members are on the same page.

Borseth was very clear that he opposes the project. He does agree that there are some leaks in the water system, but he believes the board is not acting in the best interests of the town by taking on a large, expensive project. Rather, he believes the repair work should be completed incrementally, as has been done in the past.

Borseth does not trust the numbers generated by the project’s engineers, saying the engineers are simply trying to make money rather than look out for the people.

As for the people who may not be able to afford the rate increase, Borseth explained, “this is where my passion lies.” He described the situation as retired people being “reduced to begging for money,” and said the board was wrong for putting people in such a situation.

When responding to an audience question regarding whether or not he would work with other board members to complete the water project if it is slated to begin next month, Borseth said if the board is fully committed to the project and cannot stop at this point, he would work to ensure the project is completed in a timely manner. He said he would look into whether the leakage problems could have been fixed in a better way.

Nummerador supports the ongoing water project because he says the current infrastructure is ancient and the town does not have adequate fire protection. He explained that 20 years ago a preliminary engineering report showed the water leakage problem, and the replacement project would have cost half the price of the current project, but it was not pursued. By doing the water project now, it does not allow costs to climb for a similar project in the future.

He also noted that each time a new section of the water system is fixed, there is a mobilization fee, so doing the entire project at once will save money in the long run. As for the TSEP funds, Nummerador said the money comes from a coal tax fund, so it is not being funded by local citizens.

Nummerador believes the community would be able to come together and support those who could not afford the price increase. He also noted there are programs in place to help such people save money on other utilities, such as power.

Nummerador said he enjoys working with the board and helping the people of Absarokee, so he would work to see the project through to completion.

Pete Gaustad is opposed to the water project. He does not like the idea of spending a large amount of money, and feels there was probably a more cost-effective way to handle the problem. Pete does not believe that 70 percent of the treated water is leaking because the percentage continues to change. He thinks the engineers are in the business to spend money, and so they need to be watched.

While he does not approve of the project, Pete believes the board is locked into the current project. Due to his feeling that the project is inevitable, Pete has a different objective in mind for his service on the board – helping the operator manage the system more effectively and improve overall functionality.

Rohde supports the water project. He brought a chart of the water loss in the system since 2000 and showed how the percentage of water loss stabilizes for a while after a particularly problematic section gets fixed, but the overall trend has been the system increasingly losing water. Rohde explained that fixing portions of the water system could cause problems in the older parts of the system.

He said that those who could not afford the water price increase could try to reach out to family for help. Rohde noted there are also several local charities, such as churches, the food bank, and the senior center, that may be able to help with other expenses as well.

Rohde said he would work to ensure the project was completed, as it is critical to improve the city’s infrastructure. He noted a lot of work has been done the past three years on the project, and participating in calls and meetings regarding the project with limited prior knowledge would be very difficult.

Karl Gaustad is not in favor of the project. He believes the 70 percent water leakage amount is too high – if there were leaks, the water should be surfacing somewhere. Karl feels there has been a lot of unanswered questions throughout the entire process and does not trust the engineers.

He voiced concern about the tank running dry, and noted the current water operator has done a great job, but probably needs more training.

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