Stan Browning, executive director of the Greater Peoria Sanitary District, knows his job may seem unenviable to some. “Many individuals are satisfied just knowing someone else is dealing with their sewage. Those more curious soon realize society, as we know it, couldn’t exist without a modern sewer system. The water doesn’t just go away when the toilet is flushed. A network of underground pipes and a modern water reclamation facility take over. The Sanitary District’s facilities are your facilities.”
Browning, a Sanitary District employee since 1986, is a recent graduate of Bradley University’s Executive MBA program, in addition to holding an advanced degree in environmental engineering.
Browning supports the water reclamation profession through the Illinois Association of Wastewater Agencies, being a past president of this state organization, and is currently a member of its Legislative Committee. Locally, he’s a director for the Economic Development Council and active in his church, Prospect United Methodist in Dunlap.
He and his wife, Viv, reside in Peoria and have three grown children.
Tell about your background, family, schools attended, etc.
I was raised in Alpha, a town about the size of Dunlap, located between Galesburg and Moline. The local school district is AlWood, and I had the pleasure of being my father’s student for high school chemistry, biology, and physics. I received my undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University in civil engineering and a graduate degree from the University of Illinois in environmental engineering. After college, I worked for a local consulting engineering company doing municipal work. My next employment opportunity was as city engineer for Centralia, where I met and married my wife, Viv. We moved to Peoria with our daughters in 1986, when I accepted a position with the Sanitary District. I was appointed executive director in 1990 and found myself in a management position with a technical background.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to participate in the second class of Bradley’s Executive MBA program. This was most helpful in developing my business skills, and I encourage all executives who haven’t had formal business training to consider this or a similar program.
Please give an overview of the Sanitary District’s history, the management authority, and service area for the GPSD.
The Sanitary District is a special unit of local government and exists under the laws of the State of Illinois. Most states have similar legislation enacted in the early 1900s as a means to address surface water pollution from urban areas. Imagine the living conditions and the condition of the riverfront in the 1920s. The dominant industries were brewing and distilling—plus the support industries of animal feed lots and slaughterhouses. These are significant liquid waste generators, in addition to the human waste from the urban area. All sewage flowed directly to the Illinois River without benefit of treatment. In 1927, the voters supported a referendum authorizing the establishment of the Greater Peoria Sanitary District. By 1930, the water reclamation plant was constructed on Darst Street, along with a sewer that captured the flow to the river. This was a major undertaking, and I continue to be amazed by how much work was accomplished in such a short time.
The Sanitary District is governed by a five-member board of trustees appointed by the Peoria County Board of Commissioners. Trustees have complete authority over all Sanitary District matters and operate independent from other local or state government. The board adopts ordinances, sets user charge rates, and enters into contracts just as the Peoria City Council or Peoria County Board govern and conduct their respective businesses. The Sanitary District’s authority is limited to the collection and treatment of sewage. We have the authority to levy a real estate tax but haven’t since 1980, when the user charge system was implemented.
Our service area includes Peoria, Peoria Heights, Bartonville, West Peoria, Bellevue, and adjacent unincorporated areas totaling approximately 60 square miles. We serve more than 49,000 customers with more than 3 million feet of sewer, and the water reclamation facility located on Darst Street.
Tell about your responsibilities as executive director of the Greater Peoria Sanitary District.
I carry out the policies set by the board of trustees. Of most importance is reclaiming the human and industrial sewage to protect and preserve our environment. The more tangible benefit for our customers is conveying liquid wastes away from their property.
The district has an operating budget of approximately $9 million. Staff includes 70 employees, who operate and maintain the reclamation facility and sewage collection system and provide for the expansion of our service area, address billing, collections, and administrative functions.
Over the last 15 years, the district has had a significant role in assisting the community with economic development. Most notable is the intergovernmental cooperation in creating a competitive advantage in Peoria County through the growth cells. The City of Peoria initiated this concept to sustain and expand the tax base through providing competitive areas for development. Significant funding was provided by the city to construct sewers, making development possible. I credit the district’s board of trustees in recognizing the need to be progressive and the Peoria City Council in putting their money at risk.
How did your experience as a design engineer and city engineer prepare you for this position?
Working in the consulting field gave me exposure to many different civil engineering projects. The most important thing I learned was to provide value to your client. I was constantly aware of billable time and frequently asked myself what value the client received for that last hour of my time. The City of Centralia, as do most cities, had a need in every area of public works and very limited funds to go around. This was a tremendous opportunity for a young engineer. I gained an appreciation for being cost conscious, balanced with being responsive to citizen needs.
When would a homeowner or business need to contact the GPSD? Why do you ask that they call you rather than a plumber first?
We encourage all of our customers to contact us with any sewer-related questions. This could include a sewer backup, foul odors in your neighborhood, billing questions, sewer availability for new construction, or to verify a house or business you may want to buy is connected to the sewer. This gives us personal contact and an opportunity to address service problems and solutions.
If you have poor drainage, particularly in your basement or lower level, it could be caused by a sewer blockage. By calling us to investigate, we’ll determine whether the problem is located in the district’s sewer main or the building sewer. Property owners are responsible for maintaining the pipe between the building and the public sewer. There’s no cost to the owner for this investigation. If, on the other hand, the owner calls a plumber and the problem turns out to be in the public sewer, we don’t reimburse the owner for the plumber’s fee. This allows us to control our costs and provide a service to our customers.
What’s the growth strategy for the GPSD? How does that interface with the city’s economic development and planning?
One of the district’s missions is to support and encourage economic development within and adjacent to our current service area. Along with economic development goes the cost to provide service. It’s the district’s policy that those who benefit from the service pay for it. For many years, developments have had convenient access to sewers that were previously installed and paid for. With the growth that’s occurred over the last 15 years, we’ve developed beyond the service area for the older sewers. This has provided a significant challenge for us to manage sewer capacity and costs for major sewer extensions. The district’s board of trustees historically has been conservative with spending money and reluctant to extend sewers to provide growth opportunities. The City of Peoria was willing to invest public money in sewers for Growth Cell 1 as a means to capture new housing. This has been very successful, and the concept was applied to Growth Cells 2 and 3.
The Sanitary District conducts joint planning with the city and county to assure local government is presenting a united front to the development community. District issues are related to cost of providing the sewage collection and treatment infrastructure. Much of this is driven by topography. City issues include land use planning, transportation, storm water management, and interconnecting recreational corridors. The county focus is balanced growth to preserve prime farm ground as much as possible. There’s good cooperation between the local units of government to meet the development demand.
The recently announced 700-acre expansion of Growth Cell 1 is an example of many units of local government cooperating with the private sector to support our community. The area served is financing approximately $3.5 million in sewer improvements funded through a special assessment administered by the Sanitary District. There will be no Sanitary District funds committed to the work, and expense for staff time will be reimbursed by the project. Improvements to Radnor and Wilhelm roads are being coordinated with the City of Peoria and Peoria County. The Peoria Park District will coordinate walking and biking trails connected to the Rock Island Trail. This is a comprehensive project unprecedented in recent history by the number of individuals and public agencies involved. I believe it sets a standard for cooperation that will be used as a guide well into the future.
What’s the current condition of the wastewater utility infrastructure, and what are the capital improvement needs?
The district’s oldest sewers are approaching 80 years of service. While age alone doesn’t predict failure, we know from experience that many sewers leak ground water into the pipes or are restricted with tree roots. The current method to determine pipe condition is internal inspection with a television camera. Our operating budget doesn’t provide for a comprehensive program to evaluate pipe condition on a regular basis. While we do preventive maintenance on a routine basis to keep sewers clean, we don’t have a comprehensive program to locate and repair pipe failures. An adequate sewer investigation and repair program should provide for replacing sewer pipe on less than a 100-year cycle. In rough terms, this means replacing about 20,000 feet of pipe per year at a cost of close to $2 million. That’s about 20 percent of our current operating budget and is unfunded.
We’re fortunate that our water reclamation plant has sufficient capacity to meet our 20-year projected needs. A capital improvement project is under construction now that will result in reduced power consumption and improved treatment flexibility. This is a $16 million project and most likely the largest construction project I’ll see during my employment at the Sanitary District. The project is being financed through a loan fund for sewage improvements administered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The terms of the loan are 20 years at 2.5 percent. Repayment of the loan will be through the 11 percent debt service surcharge initiated last November. One of our goals for this year is to review all of the water reclamation facilities and prepare a replacement budget and schedule. Currently, there’s no significant money being generated to sustain the treatment facilities. Operating costs are satisfied through the user charge system.
How does the GPSD work with Illinois American Water? Would potential ownership change the way business is done ?
Our user charge bills are based on water consumption. We purchase this information from the water providers: Illinois American, Peoria Heights, and Pleasant Valley Water District. In July 2004, we entered into an agreement with Illinois American to assist us with collecting delinquent accounts. Following notification to the customer, Illinois American now shuts off water service for non-payment of sewer bills. Illinois American has been most helpful and cooperative in establishing and implementing this agreement. Our bad debt write off is lower, and we clearly collect delinquent dollars faster, improving our cash flow.
Water and wastewater utilities have many similarities. We’re just on opposite sides of the faucet. Opportunities for reducing cost exist, such as joint billing of water and sewer services. This saves postage, paper, and duplicate equipment, while adding customer convenience. Other opportunities for cost savings include planning for expansion, pipe repairs, engineering, and maintenance activities. We would welcome an opportunity to discuss shared services with Illinois American or the City of Peoria in the event of an ownership transfer.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Plant a seed, provide care, and it’ll produce results. Through this interview, I hope the seeds I’ve planted will cause the readers to appreciate the future needs of the Sanitary District and the cost to sustain and grow the service that’s provided. New users can expect to pay more to obtain service; current users can expect to pay more for replacement of the pipe and equipment that serve them. The board of trustees and staff are continually looking for opportunities to contain and control cost to provide sewage collection and reclamation services. IBI