Thomas Payne’s mind is made up on the question of selling Hallsville’s sewer system to a private company.

The Hallsville resident was one of 18 at the Hallsville Community Center on Oct. 29, listening to a pitch by officials with Missouri American Water, which hopes to buy the city’s wastewater system. The utility held a town hall-style meeting, supplying sandwiches, chips, cupcakes and drinks for attendees.

“We either want to continue with a broken system or look to the future and fix it,” Payne said during the meeting.

After the meeting, he explained his absentee “yes” vote to a reporter.

“There’s no way our small town can keep up with the growth,” Payne said.

Hallsville voters on Tuesday will answer for themselves the ballot question asking to authorize the city to sell the system.

The question doesn’t specify who the buyer would be. Though Missouri American Water officials have been communicating with city officials for months about the purchase and submitted a formal proposal, it won’t be the only player, the city administrator said.

A second proposal from Liberty Utilities was expected on Friday, but had not arrived by 4 p.m.

The city has faced ongoing problems and expenses related to the sewer system, including those relating to spillage from its sewer lagoon into a nearby creek. It has resulted in legal action against residents.

Hallsville voters in 2016 approved a half-cent sales tax for capital improvements, including sewer system upgrades.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources fined the city for sewer discharges in 2012. City Administrator Kenyetta Ridgway-Sample said a consent order resulted in around $20,000 in charges to the city.

The city’s sewer system has a debt of $1.32 million. The city’s current annual revenue is $1.197 million.

“Our sewer system rates that we charge covers the debt service” and nothing else, Ridgway-Sample said.

The current sewer rate is $19.35 for the first 1,000 gallons and $5 for each subsequent 1,000 gallons.

Missouri American Water proposes buying the city’s wastewater utility for $2 million and making a $3.3 million investment in the system over the next five years. Brian Eisenloeffel, senior operations manager for the utility, said at the town hall that it likely would include building a wastewater treatment plant which is not now part of the system.

“That has to be in the cards for a treatment facility to be part of the solution,” Eisenloeffel said.

The utility officials said it would charge all residents a flat rate of $38.75 a month, projecting that Hallsville’s sewer rates would increase to $59.50 to $69.50 a month. Ridgway-Sample said in a subsequent phone interview that those projections were accurate based on a rate study the city had done.

Deborah Dewey, president of Missouri American Water, said she didn’t know how long that rate would remain in place, but any rate increase would have to be approved by the Missouri Public Service Commission based on investments it had already made. She predicted the initial rate could be in place two years.

“The increase will be less than if Hallsville had to make the improvements on its own,” Dewey said.

Land application of wastewater isn’t sufficient, Eisenloeffel said.

“We have made a pledge that we will be in compliance with DNR regulations,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to release raw, untreated sewage.”

Not all agree with the plan, including state Rep. Cheri Reisch, R-Hallsville, who was at the town hall meeting. The former Hallsville mayor said she would vote “no.”

Reisch said too much of the process had been done outside of public view. The city spent $1.6 million on the system a few years ago and there’s not much wrong with it, she added. There’s a new pump station.

“When we’ve viewed the system, it’s not good,” Eisenloeffel said in response.

There are inflow and infiltration problems in the collection system and capacity issues at the lagoon that result in unpermitted discharges. The most recent DNR inspection in 2015 resulted in a notice of violation, he said.

“I think communication is a huge problem,” Reisch said. “What the people of Hallsville need to know is if they sell our sewer system they will never get it back.”

Dewey said that could be possible using a condemnation process.

Ridgway-Sample said City Council meetings in which Missouri American Water has participated have been posted on the agendas at city hall and the city’s Facebook page.

The company initially made contact with the city about buying its system in October 2018, according to its timeline. Company officials met with the mayor in March and April 2019. It made an offer in July and appeared before the City Council in August. Public comment meetings took place last month.

Missouri American Water’s planned improvements include sewer main lining, biosolids removal from the lagoons, pump station upgrades, electrical system improvements and collection system improvements.

Another “no” vote will come from Tom Pauley, a former Hallsville City Council member.

“For years the city of Hallsville has spent a ton of money on the sewer system,” Pauley said. “It’s been expensive. Anything we can do to make it better seems like a good idea.”

Selling the system to a private utility doesn’t seem like the best solution, he said.

“I think they need to look a little harder,” he said. “If they sell this to a big corporation, it will end up charging homeowners to fix it.”

There was a time when every house in Hallsville had its own septic system, Pauley said. When that began to change, the city should have transitioned to a unified sewer system. Instead, the city did whatever it could to get by.

Former Mayor Mickey Nichols also opposes the sale, saying “I think they’re in too big a hurry.”

Too much of the issue has been developed in private, he said. Even when public meetings are held, residents don’t receive notification in a timely manner. He and some at the community town hall said they had received notification of that meeting earlier that day.

“I’m looking at it and saying we can’t put a Band-aid on it and it will go away,” Hallsville resident Glynda Weaver said at the town hall meeting. She said afterwards that she would vote “yes,” and that sewer systems are Missouri American Water’s specialty.

“It comes down to who can do it better, the local government or business?” resident George Plakorus said at the meeting.

He said after the meeting that for him, in this instance, the answer is business.

“I’m probably going to vote ‘yes,’” Plakorus said, adding that Missouri American Water is the specialist in the field.

“The city can’t keep up with it,” he said.

If voters approve the question and there is more than one proposal, Ridgway-Sample said there would be town meetings and a thorough examination of each proposal.

rmckinney@columbiatribune.com