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Transcript of JoCo on the Go podcast 12/30/19

Theresa Freed: [00:00] On this week's episode, hear from Johnson County wastewater experts about the environmentally friendly process of cleaning wastewater. You'll also find out how rates are set and why you pay what you pay for the service. Finally, learn about the county's biggest project in the works, the Tomahawk wastewater treatment facility.

Announcer: [00:18] Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed: [00:31] Thanks for joining us for Joco on the Go. I'm your host, Teresa Freed, a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. Most people are probably familiar with wastewater service. It's more or less taking care of waste that goes from your home or business. It is a complex process that residents pay for. Today, we're going to break down the cleaning process and also talk about how you're charged for that service. Joining me with more on that is Susan Pekarek, director of Johnson County Wastewater, and also Cory Welch from Wastewater. Thank you both for being here today.

Susan Pekarek: [01:03] Thank you, Theresa.

Theresa Freed: [01:04] All right. To start off with, if you can just tell us a little bit about what you do for the county.

Susan Pekarek: [01:08] Sure. Thanks Theresa. This is Susan Pekarek from Johnson County Wastewater. I'm the general manager at Johnson County Wastewater. And we serve about half a million people of the 600,000 residents here in Johnson County. And I oversee all the operations for our wastewater.

Theresa Freed: [01:24] Okay. And Corey?

Cory Welch: [01:25] Yes. Hi, I'm Cory Welch and I'm the customer service operations manager. So I manage a team of customer service representative. So we take your calls and we also process your payments for all of those 145,000 active accounts. We're processing those payments.

Theresa Freed: [01:41] All right. And wastewater is a little bit of a I don't know, difficult to understand issue for some, some people because it's not clear exactly who's handling regular water surface versus regular wastewater service. And so can you kind of break down what Johnson county's role is in that process?

Susan Pekarek: [01:59] Sure. So Johnson county's role in, in terms of wastewater is the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners actually provides governance for sanitary sewer service in Johnson County. Within the wastewater district. One of the primary things we do is to remove the disease-causing bacteria and viruses that make people sick. So we remove those before we clean up the water and then return it to the stream.

Theresa Freed: [02:25] Okay. So how exactly does wastewater differ from water service?

Cory Welch: [02:30] And I'll take that one. So the water service is the water coming into your home. And so that's providing the clean service, safe drinking water, entering your home and wastewater, I like to think of it as everything exiting your home in a pipe. So we are responsible for taking that water away from your home and treating it and then returning safely to the rivers and streams.

Theresa Freed: [02:51] Okay. And not everyone in Johnson County is serviced by Johnson County's wastewater service, is that right? There are some residents they're in a certain geographic area, they don't have our service, is that right?

Susan Pekarek: [03:00] That's correct. Johnson County Wastewater serves about 16 cities in the County and other cities provide sanitary sewer service. Those include DeSoto, Olathe serves a portion of its city, Gardner-Edgerton and Spring Hill.

Theresa Freed: [03:17] Okay. So the big question I think that we get quite a bit is how exactly do we set the rates?

Susan Pekarek: [03:23] Good question. Thanks, Theresa. So every year we update our financial model. It's a 10-year outlook and the reason we do a 10 year plan is so that we can anticipate any changes in costs associated with providing sanitary sewer service. By doing that, if rate increases are needed, we can do that incrementally and avoid those rate spikes. We also do a 25-year plan for our capital improvement plan. One of the biggest things about our program and being able to keep rates as low as we do is that we take care of the system that we have. So we invest in it as it's aging as opposed to waiting and spending bigger dollars to have to replace it later.

Theresa Freed: [04:08] Okay. And it's, it's pretty costly, I'm sure to make those, those sorts of upgrades and things like that along the way. But less costly than having to make major repairs. Right?

Susan Pekarek: [04:18] Right. I would use a car analogy. For example, if you buy a new car, you're going to probably take care of it. You're going to change the oil, you'll put new tires on it when it's needed. You'll change the air filters. You're going to want to keep the maintenance up so that you can keep that car for as long as you need it and it will be reliable. If you did nothing, you would end up replacing the entire car and just a few years because it would not function as well had you not maintained it. So we, we do a lot of preventive maintenance on our system.

Theresa Freed: [04:48] Okay. That makes a lot of sense. So I'm sure in the customer service world you get lots of questions about people just unclear about what the different fees are and things like that. So what are the things that that people might see on their bill that they could have a question about?

Cory Welch: [05:03] A lot of questions come around our term average winter water usage and what exactly that is. And that's really the volume component. So if you were to see at sharp increase in your bill, it's likely going to be, because you used a lot more water. And the way we calculate the average winter water usage is by looking at typically the first two meter reads of the year. And that's in the winter period because typically that's when you're using less water outside that's going to be soaked up in the ground and not require a treatment. So we look at the first two meter reads of the year and then we calculate a 60-day average on that and we bill six times a year. And so usually when we see a big increase in the bill, we'll talk to the customer and talk about their water usage. And a lot of times there might've been a leak outside or a leaky toilet or possibly it's just you have more people living with you. So there might not be anything wrong with that spike, but certainly You can call us and we'll talk through it. And we always have access to the meter reads so we can see the water usage

Theresa Freed: [06:04] By looking at the, the winter averages. That's really a way to help help the customer. Right. I mean you're not looking at the times when they would be spending the or using the most water. Is that pretty standard across the state or country and in terms of how that that's done?

Cory Welch: [06:20] That is correct. Oh, a lot of our counterparts do use winter water usage as well. But something to keep in mind that's important is that the winter you're using this year is actually going to be calculated into your bill for next year. So we always use the previous winter because we recalculate the rates every January. And so the bill that you get in 2020, we're going to be looking at the meter reads that you had in the winter of 2019.

Theresa Freed: [06:48] Okay. And when you mentioned that there might be something going on with the home that could cause that spike and you talked through that with, with the customer are there any resources available to help them kind of identify or problem shoot that issue?

Cory Welch: [07:03] Absolutely and that's our customer service team is really skilled at avid having these conversations and looking at the water usage and more often than not just with a conversation over the phone and looking at the meter read history that we can make an adjustment right there. If one's warranted, then we'll make an adjustment right on the phone.

Theresa Freed: [07:23] Okay. That was another question I had. If something seems just completely outrageous, you know, do, do people have some sort of process in order to appeal I guess, what they've been charged?

Cory Welch: [07:35] Yeah, absolutely. And we try to make that as conversational as possible and less intrusive. Sometimes we do need support supporting documentation from a plumber, but a lot of times we can just have a conversation and evaluate it right on the spot.

Theresa Freed: [07:49] Okay. That's great. Information in Johnson County is pretty competitive in terms of that, the charge when you look at our region. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Susan Pekarek: [07:58] Yeah, Theresa, I'll take that one. So yes, we actually are among the lowest of our peer utilities in the region. We're also about 9% lower than the national average. And really part of that is the way we continue to reinvest in our system and take care of it. And the way we do the long-term planning that actually helps us keep those rates lower because again, we can plan ahead and take care of things as in the most cost effective way.

Theresa Freed: [08:25] Okay. And speaking of that wastewater is really doing some great innovative things, especially when it comes to looking at environmentally friendly processes. And I'm sure those have some added efficiencies in terms of cost as well. For the customer. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Susan Pekarek: [08:47] Absolutely, so one of the biggest things we do that's environmentally friendly is we're actually recovering a very precious resource in that we are cleaning up water and returning it to our streams and rivers. We use biology. We're actually just doing what nature does and we just do it faster. But in doing that it requires power in order to be able to clean the water. And so electricity is actually one of our larger costs in our budget. And so it was very important as every time that we're upgrading a facility or we're even just upgrading a piece of equipment, we're always utilizing the most energy efficient piece of equipment that we can put into place. Other things we do to help save particularly when it comes to power, is that at one of our treatment facilities, methane gas is actually produced as a byproduct of part of the solids processing. We recover that methane gas use it as a fuel and engine generators and we generate about 40% of our power that we use at that particular facility. We also utilize the waste heat from those engine generators and use that to heat buildings at that particular facility as well. So that ends up saving us money and helps us avoid purchasing additional power.

Theresa Freed: [10:01] Okay. And sort of on the, along the same lines. You guys do something special with grease as well, is that, is that right?

Susan Pekarek: [10:09] Yes. So in terms of grease, grease actually is required to be intercepted from restaurants and from the food industry. We don't want that grease to end up in the sanitary sewers because it can cause blockages and that can cause backups into homes and businesses. So instead we have that grease intercepted at the restaurants. It's required to be pumped by haulers. The haulers bring that grease to our facility. We feed that grease directly into the digesters, which actually in turn helps us create more methane gas and then helps us create more power that we can use there onsite.

Theresa Freed: [10:46] Okay. That's great. The next big project that we can look forward to with wastewater is the Tomahawk facility. And can you talk a little bit about why that treatment plant was needed and then also where we're at with the projects?

Susan Pekarek: [11:01] Certainly. So the Tomahawk wastewater treatment facility was a facility where originally we did not treat all of the flow there. We treated about 40% of that flow and sent the remainder to Kansas City, Missouri to treat for us. As we've continued to evaluate that, we evaluated alternatives for what's the best long term alternative. And what we found was treating all of the flow on site provided the best long term solution for our ratepayers. In other words, we could control rate increases more by treating it all on-site. In addition, it's the most environmentally friendly solution, that we could provide there onsite as well. And talking about innovation, actually, again, we're always looking at, ways to save energy. And so we're utilizing a new treatment process at the Tomahawk facility in which we will be treating what's called a sidestream treatment. So not the primary flow, but, some concentrated flow, utilizing a newer technology called anammox and that in fact pays for itself in five to seven years because of the significant energy reductions that this process takes care of for us.

Theresa Freed: [12:19] Okay. And when can that project or when do you expect it to be wrapped up?

Susan Pekarek: [12:23] And so this project is currently under construction and we anticipate treating flow by October of 2021 and then wrapping up in early 2022.

Theresa Freed: [12:33] Okay. And where exactly is Tomahawk located?

Susan Pekarek: [12:36] Tomahawk treatment facility is located at Lee Boulevard and Mission Road.

Theresa Freed: [12:41] Okay. And I know there were some very large cranes out there. I can't remember if this is one of the projects where they came down or they're still working on them, but that's probably the most visible thing from, from the road for people to see right now.

Susan Pekarek: [12:52] That's correct. If you saw three tower cranes up in the air, I think one of them has since come down as you mentioned. But that is where the project is located to South of four 35.

Theresa Freed: [13:03] Okay. So very exciting project for the County. And bottom line there is it will ultimately help with keeping costs down for residents, right?

Susan Pekarek: [13:11] Yes. Once the project is online, we'll be saving a minimum of $16 million a year that we were paying and treatment costs to others to treat the flow for us. So that results in hundreds of millions of dollars a year that will be safe.

Theresa Freed: [13:24] Okay. And along the lines of talking about costs for residents, one of the more pricey things that can pop up is if somebody has a break in their, their line, right. and the County has some, some help for people, is that right?

Susan Pekarek: [13:39] That's correct. We offer the street restoration program to help reverse reimburse homeowners for the cost of repairing the line that connects to the main, so the Johns County wastewater owns and maintains the main, but the homeowner actually does own and is responsible for maintaining or replacing the line that runs from the home and connects to the main. Sometimes those can be buried underneath streets and when that, that is the case that can be, as you can imagine, really costly to repair. You have to dig up the street. And in those cases then there's an application process and Johnson County Wastewater would reimburse up to $5,000 for restoring that street.

Theresa Freed: [14:19] Okay. So a pricey process and project. Is there something that homeowners can do to prevent those sorts of things from happening?

Susan Pekarek: [14:29] You know, one thing I recommend is knowledge is power. So homeowners can actually talk to a plumber, have their service line inspected, and that really gives them a better understanding of whether or not they're going to have any issues in the, with their service line. And they can proactively manage those as opposed to waiting until they have an issue and they can't use their surface line any longer.

Theresa Freed: [14:56] And I would imagine this is more of an issue with older homes is, is that accurate? Are there certain areas of the County where you're seeing more of this as a problem?

Susan Pekarek: [15:06] Generally we might anticipate there would be more service line issues in the Northeastern portion of our county, particularly inside the four 35 loop. And that's just because it's the oldest portion of our system. Our, our system's about 75 years old. And so these service lines were be constructed with clay pipe because that was all that was available in those days. And so you as those systems age, you'll get more tree roots in your service line. And freeze and thaw will just cause them to settle differently. That doesn't mean we don't see issues outside of the four 35 loop. You know, directional drilling, other types of construction that may or may not come through certain areas can impact a particular service line. So we can also see those things happening outside.

Theresa Freed: [15:53] All right. Great. All right. So one other thing that we want to mention. I know that customer service is a big priority for wastewater and I know you guys are also doing some things to improve how residents can pay their bills. So do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Cory Welch: [16:06] We are trying to make it easier for people to pay their bills. So we just started accepting credit card payments over the phone and we are working on revamping our online payment processing system and it'll just be more user friendly and that should be rolled out the first quarter of 2020 great.

Theresa Freed: [16:24] Okay, good news. Anything else that you all want to share?

Susan Pekarek: [16:26] Thanks Theresa. There are a couple of other programs that are available to residents reimbursement programs. One is when we experienced those extremely high rain events, residents may experience flooding and if that's the case they can contact us and we can help them identify whether or not it's due to a sanitary sewer backup. If it is, we actually have a program in place called backup prevention and we will reimburse homeowners or property owners to install a backup valve in their home, which will help them protect their home from any future flooding events. The other program we have is called our I&I program. And basically what that means is if a home, again, these are usually in the older portions of our system, they might have a foundation drain connected directly to the sanitary sewer. That's groundwater. It's water that we don't need to treat and so we will reimburse them for disconnecting that source. What that usually results in is that we will install a sump pump or their plumber, I should say, will install a sump pump and we will reimburse them for doing that and disconnecting that source from the sanitary sewer. It helps everybody if they do that.

Theresa Freed: [17:36] All right. Those were some great services and programs that we have available with Johnson County Wastewater and where can residents go to get more information about wastewater?

Susan Pekarek: [17:44] They can go to our website, www.jcw.org.

Theresa Freed: [17:50] All right. Sounds good. Thank you both for joining us today.

Announcer: [17:52] You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast, visit jocogov.org/podcast. Thanks for listening.