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Flathead Lake, with the city of Polson in the foreground.

POLSON — As Polson Mayor Heather Knutson’s term winds down, she hopes to leave her post with the community looking to the future instead of in the rear- view mirror.

Earlier this week, Knutson and Polson City Manager Mark Shrives gave their annual update to the Polson Chamber.

The town’s expensive upgrade to its wastewater plant topped their list of topics.

Shortly after taking over that office four years ago, Knutson and the City Commission were faced with the difficult decision of building a new wastewater treatment plant capable of meeting stringent requirements for treating effluent.

In an interview after the talk, Shrives said the community knew for years the project was needed.

“They had been talking about it for 20 years or so,” Shrives said. “They had come to the point where the regulations were so stringent for effluent that they were impossible to meet with the old system. They had to make a decision.”

The estimated cost for the new system — including all the engineering and other work — topped $17 million.

At the time, sewage rates hadn’t changed for years and financial reserves were minimal.

“When it came time to actually do the project, there was no money that had been saved to meet the debt payback,” Shrives said. “So instead of small incremental increases, the city had to substantially raise rates. That was the real painful part.”

Two rate increases meant residents paid $50 more a month.

A third smaller rate increase might not be needed if the work on the new plant continues without any unexpected hitches.

The total $17.6 million project had a $1 million contingency fund built into it.

So far, Shrives said the project has seen only $32,000 in change orders.

If that trend continues, Shrives said, “the hope is that we can take $1 million and not have to do any more rate increases."

On Wednesday, the construction company had completed 227 days of what’s expected to be a 532-day project.

Knutson said her hope is the city won’t find itself faced with anything similar following city officials’ efforts to do a better job of looking toward future challenges.

“Hopefully, we will not be caught in a position that we were with the wastewater facility again,” Knutson said. “If we can start anticipating issues and looking ahead, hopefully we’ll be able to plan for them better and not have those harsh realities when they hit.”

The mayor said the city has worked to communicate better with both its residents and other governmental agencies.

The city recently unveiled an updated website that Knutson said should provide Polson residents with better access to the workings of city government.

This past year, the City Commission made a point of meeting with the County Commission to discuss issues where cooperation was important. Both entities agreed to meet three times annually to continue those discussions. The commission also continued to meet with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council to provide updates and listen to concerns.

“It’s great for the entire community to have governmental agencies working together like that,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to see the benefits of that moving forward.”

Other presentations to the chamber included:

• an update on city officials working with the Montana Department of Transportation to create some new drainage near the bridge to ensure that the lake that formed there last winter doesn’t reappear.

• the city’s volunteer fire department is making good use of a new training facility. Shrives said the fire chief told him that volunteers had a “textbook” effort to control a recent structure fire after completing a training the night before on that same type of situation.

• the irrigation system on the back nine holes at the Polson Bay Golf Course has been replaced at a cost of $850,000. The course’s restaurant has also been remodeled.

As a result of the work on the irrigation system, Shrives said folks will have to look for another place to go sledding this winter.

“There are a lot of holes left out there,” Shrives said. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt. So officially, we’ve had to say no to sledding this winter.”

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