By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Frustrated by rising cost estimates for a new city-owned regional sewage treatment plant and yet another delay in increasing capacity at the existing plant, Del Norte County officials are looking elsewhere for a partner.

The county is unable to issue any more building permits until more sewer connections become available. That won't happen until the city of Crescent City gets the OK from the state to increase capacity at its sewer plant.

This week, the city was told that its request for more capacity - expected to be approved Nov. 4 - likely won't be heard until February of 2004.

Del Norte County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Finigan said yesterday the county is talking separately with the Elk Valley Rancheria about partnering on a new regional wastewater facility.

andquot;If we think we can do it cheaper and faster with someone else than how the city is doing it, we will,andquot; Finigan said.

Finigan said the goal of a partnership with the rancheria is to eliminate dependence on the city for sewer service.

He added that he hopes city officials are involved in the talks and that the county and city work together toward a communitywide solution.

City public works officials could not be reached yesterday to comment on the change. Rancheria leaders were also unavailable.

Frustrations have been building on the county side as the price tag for a planned new city-owned plant has grown to $48 million and the time line has stretched to 2007. Earlier, the cost of building a new plant was estimated at $23 million.

andquot;I don't see us continuing down the road we are on when the price tag has gone from $23 million to $48 million, which this community cannot afford,andquot; Finigan said.

andquot;We are in discussions with the tribe that came up three or four months ago to maybe build a regional plant as a cheaper alternative,andquot; he added.

Last week, it was revealed that the county has stopped issuing building permits pending approval of the city's request for increased sewer capacity.

The latest blow was an announcement this week that no more sewer connections will be issued until late February, instead of early November as expected.

The state Regional Water Quality Control Board was expected to grant a request from Crescent City to allow 160 more connections to the city's wastewater treatment plant at its Nov. 4 meeting.

Water board staffing cuts have delayed the processing of the request, however, and it may not be heard until Feb. 25.

andquot;We would be pushing it to get it on the January meeting and it looks like it will be February. In the meantime, they are restricted to the 220 connections issued in 1999,andquot; said Tom Dunbar, a senior engineer for the state water board.

Crescent City's wastewater treatment plant was built in the 1950s. Since 1981, the county has acquired about 3,040 connections to the sewer plant for development in the unincorporated urban area.

Now, the county has no more connections available. Crescent City has only nine sewer connections left.

Both entities have performed many repairs to sewer pipes and modernized the sewer plant since 1999 to increase its capacity.

The city's request to the water board for a permit to issue 160 more connections is based on those repairs.

Though a total of 62 unused sewer connections still exist, those connections are owned by local builders or vacant property owners, not by the county planning department.

Del Norte County has one representative on the state's water board, county Assessor Gerald Cochran.

Cochran said yesterday he was unaware of the delay in granting the new connections, but will advocate for an earlier hearing.

andquot;They had a state cutback of 20 positions in the northern region, so those things happen. But I'm certainly going to request that it come up on the agenda before February - that doesn't give builders time,andquot; Cochran said.