Clean water agency sinks despite win in high court

The website is down, and the office furniture is set to be sold off this week in an event being billed as an “absolute auction.”

For an agency that just won a $62 million lawsuit, the Clean Water Coalition sure doesn’t act like it.

Despite its victory in the Nevada Supreme Court on May 26, the coalition continues its steady march toward oblivion.

A vote Tuesday will decide whether to dissolve the regional entity and permanently shelve the $800 million wastewater project it was created to build.

Then comes Wednesday’s auction, at which the contents of the coalition’s Henderson office will be sold to the highest bidder. Cash only, please. Everything must go.

“It’s a melancholy day. I have mixed emotions,” said General Manager Chip Maxfield, as he stood in the near-empty office Wednesday.

The former Clark County commissioner is one of only two staff members left at an organization that once employed five full-time workers and about two dozen consultants.

IN THE PIPELINE

The Clark County Water Reclamation District and the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas formed the coalition in 2002 to address the valley’s growing sewage problem.

As the population exploded, so did the amount of treated wastewater being dumped into Lake Mead by way of the Las Vegas Wash.

The rising tide from the valley’s sewage treatment plants caused erosion problems in the wash and water quality problems in the lake.

Coalition officials planned to tunnel through the River Mountains and pipe the valley’s effluent to an array of diffusers at the bottom of Lake Mead.

Then the economy crashed, halting growth and drying up the connection charge revenue that was expected to fund most of the work.

Amid mounting questions about the need for the pipeline and growing concern about how to pay for it, the coalition’s four-member board first voted to suspend the project in December 2009.

Three months later, state lawmakers came calling, ordering the regional entity to hand over money it had collected to build the pipeline.

COURT RULING

The Nevada Supreme Court on May 26 declared that demand unconstitutional. The ruling turned state budget talks on their ear and left coalition board members with a decision to make about what to do with the $62 million lawmakers tried to take.

That question could be answered when the board meets at 2 p.m. Tuesday in commission chambers at the Clark County Government Center. On the agenda is a termination agreement that would dissolve the coalition and return the $62 million to the four member entities that collected it.

The county stands to receive $32 million, while Las Vegas would get about $16 million, Henderson $8 million and North Las Vegas $6 million. What happens to the money after that will be up to each jurisdiction, Maxfield said.

Coalition board member and Henderson City Councilman Steve Kirk knows what he would do with it: refund it to ratepayers.

“It certainly should go back to those who paid it,” Kirk said. “It’s money that’s owed to them. I’m sure they could use it.”

The M Resort in Henderson is one such ratepayer.

The hotel-casino triggered the state Supreme Court ruling when it sued to block the state from raiding the coalition’s coffers.

If ratepayers get back everything they paid in, the M Resort can expect a refund of about $1 million.

A COMPLICATED CLOSURE

Some critics wonder why it has taken this long to close down the coalition, considering its signature project was put on the shelf more than a year ago.

Kirk said you can’t dissolve a complex public body by simply switching off the lights. There were contracts to complete, legal questions to answer, agreements to unwind.

As Maxfield put it: “There is no road map. We’re creating a road map for dissolving a public entity, because we couldn’t find one.”

And it’s not finished yet.

The coalition can’t be dissolved without the unanimous consent of the board. When the idea last came up on May 12, North Las Vegas City Councilman Robert Eliason voted against dissolution.

Eliason won’t say how he plans to vote this week.

Kirk said he supports disbanding the coalition because it no longer has a “clear, defined mission.”

But he hopes the cooperative spirit behind the organization will live on. “Wastewater is a regional issue. We all put our effluent into the wash. It all affects the lake,” Kirk said.

Maxfield agrees. He said the regional model has already worked well to build highways, curb floods and deliver drinking water across the valley.

The project may not be economically feasible today, but Maxfield said the wastewater pipeline or something like it will need to be built eventually.

“It might be five years. It might be 10. It might be 20,” he said.

In anticipation of that day, all the studies, plans and documents completed so far — nearly $70 million worth of work — will be boxed up and stored, most likely by the county.

Almost everything else the coalition owns is set to be sold.

GOING ONCE, GOING TWICE

Wednesday’s auction will feature everything from framed prints taken during the construction of Hoover Dam to an electronic plotter that could fetch several thousand dollars.

There are several hundred items in all, including desks, chairs, file cabinets, computers, cubicle walls, printer paper and other typical office fare.

Also on the auction block are the coalition’s safe, presumably empty; the U.S. and Nevada flags that are put up during board meetings; and the office’s break-room refrigerators and emergency defibrillators.

“Everything’s going,” said Curt Hubbard, auctioneer and owner of Grand Ole Auctions, the company handling the sale. “It’s my task to make it all go away, right down to the carpet.”

The auction is set to start at 10 a.m. and last for a few hours. Would-be bidders can preview the merchandise from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday at the coalition’s office at 150 N. Stephanie St., just north of Wigwam Parkway.

Right now, the coalition has no plans to spend any money after June 30.

Maxfield said a basic budget is being drawn up just in case the entity somehow survives Tuesday’s meeting.

The member jurisdictions are no longer collecting connection charges and user fees from sewer customers, but until the board decides otherwise, the coalition is still a legal entity with control of about $65 million in public money.

“Someone has to be minding the store,” Maxfield said.

He thinks that caretaking job can be done on a part-time basis, most likely from an office at one of the coalition’s member agencies, but that too will be up to the board to decide.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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