Busted Axle Road
Chapter 56

Copyright© 1993, 2001, 2010

It didn't happen very often, but every now and then, Mike knew that when he sat down at the computer to write, it was going to ignite a fire storm, and he'd never had the feeling more strongly than he had at this time.

The Spearfish Lake City Council met every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. For twelve years, now, every other week Mark had come back to the Record-Herald after the meeting, to do the council story and with it put the finishing touches on the paper.

There were some preparations to be made before he could write. Alone in the building, in the late evening right after the council meeting, he checked the front page, the only page still laid out on the makeup tables. From the agenda, it hadn't looked like it was going to be much of a council meeting, and he thought he'd been generous to leave fourteen inches for it. The hole left for the council story didn't lead the page, either, but he could slide the county commission story he'd planned on leading with down, and cut down on the size of the headline, and that would gain a few inches. Not enough.

There was a three column picture at the upper left, of the firemen out fighting a grass fire. There'd been enough of those; they could do without, this time. Yanking the photo opened up a rather ragged six-column hole, clear across the page, and if any story called for a six-column head, this one did. The Record-Herald hadn't run one of those since the girl's softball team won the state championships, back in '83. The page would look unbalanced, but he doubted that anyone would care about the niceties.

With a six-column streamer, that left a hole of about 24 inches. It probably wouldn't be enough, but there was a filler ad back on page 7 where the story could be jumped, if it had to be. Mike hated to have to jump the story, especially one like this, so decided to try and write it to 24 inches.

He went back down to his office, booted up the computer on his desk, and loaded Pagemaker. It wasn't the greatest program for writing, but he could work right to the size of the hole. He stared at the blank, gray screen, hoping inspiration would come for a headline. He liked to start with a headline, since sometimes it could define the story, but everything he could think of was too long. Maybe the story could help him, so he bit his lip, and started,

"Property owners in about half of Spearfish Lake will be faced with special property assessments of up to $7,500 per acre to pay for separation of the storm and sanitary sewers, following an announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week that the city will be fined up to $20,000 per day, unless the action is taken."

That wasn't quite right, and it was unwieldy, but he could clarify it. Best to blame the EPA right up front, he thought; the council is going to take enough heat as it is. My God, am I ever glad Kirsten and I sold out when we did, he thought for the umpteenth time since item number 9 had come up on the council's agenda. He got on with the story:

"The Spearfish Lake City Council was informed of the EPA action at Tuesday's meeting, when City Manager Don Kutzley announced that commencing July 1 of next year the city will have to pay fines of $10,000 for each day the city's waste water treatment plant is out of compliance. As of July 1, 1990, the fines will go to $20,000 per day."

There, he thought, that clarifies the ambiguity of the lead. Better get into the why a little more, before we get to the bad part.

"Kutzley said that the Environmental Protection Agency took the action in response to the repeated flooding of the city's sewer treatment plant caused by storm water being allowed into the sewage water during periods of heavy rains. Last year, the plant was out of compliance for this reason 23 times, although it's only flooded out eight times so far this year.

"Part of the city's storm drainage is on the surface, or in short, separate storm drains to lakes or lowlands, and these areas are not affected by the action. However, much of the south part of the city has storm drainage into the sewer system.

Mike realized it was time to get to the part that was going to set off the screaming:

"An engineering study done in 1983 indicated that it would cost about $3,000,000 to remedy the problem. However, Kutzley indicated that due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates, a final figure well over the $4 million mark could be expected.

"The city has made repeated attempts over the last fifteen years to find state and federal funds to remedy the problem, to no avail. 'Without any hope of funding, we're obviously going to have to do it ourselves, ' Kutzley said. 'I've looked at it every way I can think of, and the only fair way I can see to fund the project is to assess the property owners in the problem area.'"

Mike floundered for a few seconds. It was necessary to take a fairly complicated idea that Kutzley had presented over several minutes, and sum it up in a second or two, without confusing the reader.

"'The fairest way to do it', Kutzley explained, is to assess each property owner in the area by their percentage of land area in the problem zone. 'Larger properties contribute more to the runoff than smaller ones do, ' he said."

That tended to ignore the fact that the city itself was a large landowner in the area, and from what Mike had been able to figure out, Kutzley hadn't included streets and parking lots and the like in the runoff, although they contributed. That opened up a can of worms, though, and Kutzly's plan was admittedly a rough-cut. Which, Mike knew, was a point he'd better make before much longer.

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