Croton and Mooar/Powdertown are a couple of Lee County’s small unincorporated communities. Mooar/Powdertown is located just north of Keokuk, along Highway 61 while Croton sits just a few miles south of Farmington near the Avenue of the Saints.
Neither community has a sanitary sewer system, which prompted them to start working with Mount Pleasant-based RUSS (Regional Utility Service Systems) in 2010.
The projects were put on hold months ago over funding and personnel issues with RUSS. The residents are now being asked whether they should keep working with RUSS.
RUSS was formed in 1999 as part of an agreement between five counties in southern Iowa. It has since grown to support ten counties, including Lee, Des Moines, Henry, and Van Buren.
RUSS helps communities secure state and federal money for sanitary sewer systems. The organization most directly works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as several state agencies.
Nine community-based systems have been installed and completed since RUSS was formed. A tenth is set to go online later this year while a few others are in the works.
John Marek is the mayor of Mount Union, which is tucked away in Henry County, surrounded by corn and bean fields. He says he is not a big fan of RUSS.
“(I) and the city of Mount Union believe RUSS is a parasite,” says Marek.
Marek says there are a few home-based businesses and a large farm co-op in Mount Union, but for the most part, it is a residential community of just over 100 people.
He hopes communities like Croton and Mooar/Powdertown take a lesson from his community: Don’t enter into an agreement with RUSS.
“It started off with good intentions,’ says Marek, “but it has run amok. The other communities need to be aware of what they are getting into. Once you sign that 28-E agreement, you have nothing.”
Mount Union signed its contract with RUSS in August of 2008. It states the organization will help the city secure state and federal funding for a sanitary sewer system, which will be owned, operated, and maintained by RUSS.
Marek says RUSS did secure money so the project could be built, but he says the final cost could have been much lower. He points to a change in the design halfway through the process that he says lowered construction costs and increased operation and management.
Marek says because of that, residents cannot afford their monthly sewer bills.
“I have people in Mount Union whose bills are $98/month for sewer by itself,” says Marek, “$98. (That) on top of gas, water, and house payments. One person is way below poverty line, so they cannot afford it.”
Just over a quarter of the homes in Mount Union are at least 60 days delinquent in paying their sewer bill to RUSS. There appears to be an option available for Mount Union to cover the late fees, but Marek says the city is not interested in doing that.
Bruce Hudson took over as Executive Director of RUSS about six months ago, so he was not involved with the organization when it entered into a contract with Mount Union.
Hudson’s background is as a county sanitarian. He says his goal is to fix the situation in Mount Union.
“The system is there (Mount Union),” says Hudson, “We need to make sure it is affordable for everybody.”
Hudson says he is willing to explore all options to improve the relationship between the two sides and to address the burden being felt by some residents. In fact, he says his biggest challenge is to convince people that RUSS is not the “Bad Guy.”
“We are here and we are doing great things,” says Hudson, “and I get phone calls every day from people who are hearing the negative everyday. That is what is being broadcast (in the media), the negative. What keeps me going is the individuals who call me and say we want this system and we want you here and it is time to do something.”
Hudson acknowledges that much of the bad press is linked to RUSS’s previous executive director, Kelly Lewiston, who resigned in late 2010. He says that is in the past, though, and the organization is moving forward.
That starts with meetings coming up this week in Lee County.
Residents of Mooar/Powdertown will meet at the Jackson Township Fire Department at 6:30 P.M., Tuesday, April 3 while a similar meeting will be held in Croton at 6:30 P.M., Tuesday, April 5.
Hudson says he plans to be in attendance to provide as many answers as he can.
“I don’t want to go into a community and lead them astray as far as what I am thinking,” says Hudson. “The only real number I will have is at the end of the project.”
The number Hudson is referring to is the final cost of the project, which is used to determine the monthly bills for customers of RUSS’s sewer systems.
The idea of building sanitary sewer systems in rural communities is not a concept dreamed up by RUSS. It is the result of the Clean Water Act and ongoing clean-up efforts by state and federal agencies.
Barbara Lynch with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says the state wants to make sure smaller streams and creeks in rural areas are not polluted.
“We are concerned about public health and safety because there could be kids playing in a stream or fishing or canoeing,” says Lynch. “So it is a public health or safety issue if there is raw sewage going into a creek or stream.”
Lynch says some issues can be addressed with a new septic system while others require the larger systems, for which RUSS provides assistance. She says fines and penalties are possible as a last resort.
“Our first goal is to get everything fixed,” says Lynch. “The penalty is only when there is a serious problem that no one will address. It is meant to push them along a little bit.”
Mount Union Mayor John Marek says his community was in that boat. It had been placed on the Iowa D-N-R’s radar because of sewage entering a creek.
He says the city was willing to address its environmental issues, but he believes there were less costly options available for his city. Marek says he will continue looking for answers to his questions about what happened in Mount Union.
He hopes his town’s experience serves as a warning to others.
The communities of Croton and Mooar do not face any environmental penalties at this time, but all it could take is one phone call to start the process. There is also a relatively-new Iowa law requiring homes be connected to a sewer system or have a septic system that meets specific standards before they can be sold.
That means it is up to residents to decide whether they want to work with RUSS on a sanitary sewer system or leave things alone and wait to see what happens.