By Robert Tomlinson
THREE RIVERS — The City of Three Rivers took a key step Tuesday towards possibly getting state funding for some lead water line replacement in the city.
City commissioners unanimously approved submitting a project plan for water system improvements, including the replacement of lead service lines, for possible funding from Michigan’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) program.
If the plan is accepted by the state for funding, approximately 336 water service lines to homes in areas of 14 different streets in the city would be replaced out of what Department of Public Services Director Amy Roth estimated were around 1,100 that are in need of replacement due to the possibility of them being lead service lines.
The total estimated project cost to replace the approximately 19,430 feet of water lines is currently projected to be $14.5 million.
Steven Bishop of Fleis & Vandenbrink, the city’s contractor for putting the plan together, told commissioners in a presentation during Tuesday’s City Commission meeting that he anticipated a decision by the state on whether or not the city will receive funding would not be made until fall of this year, with design of a project beginning soon after if the city chooses to move forward and construction beginning in summer of 2024.
The following areas would be included in the project for water service line replacement if approved:
- Spring Street (from South Street right-of-way to King Street)
- Sixth Avenue (from Wood Street to Jefferson Street)
- Pine Street (from Hoffman Street to Portage Avenue)
- King Street (from Spring Street to Spring Street)
- Eighth Street (from Canal Street to Broadway Street)
- South Hooker Avenue (from West Michigan Avenue to Millard Street and from Millard Street to Broadway Street; considered to be two different streets in the plan)
- Oak Street (from Hoffman Street to Armitage Street)
- Ninth Street (from River Street to Broadway Street)
- Eighth Avenue (from Washington Street to Jefferson Street)
- Middle Street (from East Michigan Avenue to River Drive)
- South Grant Avenue (from Millard Street to Broadway Street)
- Pealer Street (from Grant Avenue to Hooker Avenue)
- Mechanic Street (from South Main Street to Eighth Street)
In all, the project would include five streets in the Third District, three streets in the Fourth District, three streets in the Second District, and two streets in the First District. Service line replacement would also include the replacement of the 4-to-6-inch water mains currently in place in those areas with an 8-inch water main in all locations. Both the mains and service lines would have “useful lives” of 50 years, according to the project plan.
“What you’re seeing here is the city swinging the bat to try to hit a home run,” Bishop said.
Bishop said in his presentation the state has between $200 million and $400 million allocated for projects such as the ones Three Rivers is trying to do to meet the requirements of a mandate the state enacted in 2018 under former Gov. Rick Snyder to replace all lead service lines by the end of 2040. The city, per state requirements, had had to list four alternative options to consider, he said: Doing nothing, “optimizing” the performance of the existing system, regionalizing the water system with surrounding municipalities, or make improvements to the water system, which was the selected choice.
“Some of these are pretty easy to understand to not consider any further, but we had to consider them,” Bishop said.
Most of the discussion by commissioners and Bishop regarded the kind of funding the city could potentially get from the revolving fund. Currently, according to the plan, the city is anticipating funding the project with a DWSRF loan at 1.875 percent interest for a 20-year period, of which the city would owe $881,308 per year. However, Bishop said if the state gets grant funds from the DWSRF to offset the loan, “the intention, obviously, is not to have the community pay for this” with higher water rates.
“If all $14.5 million were grant [funds], there would be no impact to the user charge. If there was 0 percent grant, if all of it were loans, that would have about a $10.36 per month user charge per [Residential Equivalent Unit] increase,” Bishop said.
Bishop said, personally, he expected the city to get a combination of a grant and loan from the DWSRF, as the state would weigh the other requests from cities across the state and then “would make an offer” to the city for funding.
“There are communities that got 100 percent grant [funding] last time, and there were communities that didn’t even get offered a loan last time, so it could be any combination of it,” Bishop said.
When asked if the city had a backup plan if they didn’t get funding, Bishop said it’d be like it is now, with no funding and the city still on the hook for replacing the lines. However, he said the DWSRF is the “best funding option I’ve seen” so far for water service line replacement.
At-Large Commissioner Torrey Brown asked, if the city was hypothetically offered 50 percent of the project cost in a grant and the other 50 percent as a loan, if they were able to just take the 50 percent grant and not take the loan. Bishop said he wasn’t sure, and that it may come down to negotiations with the state.
As the 336 lines are just a fraction of the total lines estimated to be replaced, First District Commissioner Pat Dane asked why the city didn’t go for all of the lines that needed to be replaced. Roth replied by saying it came down to affordability for the city.
“We always hope we’re going to see a 100 percent grant offered to it, but the likelihood of it, knowing that we’re going under the assumption that it’d be a 50 percent loan, 50 percent grant, what is the affordability of that for the city,” Roth said. “I couldn’t imagine how much that project cost would have been, so we were trying to get the most services on the oldest mains, that’s what we went for first with what we’re hoping we can afford, but it always depends on what they offer.”
Brown agreed with Roth’s assessment, adding that the city would have a better chance at getting it if they went for a smaller chunk rather than going for all of the 1,100 lines at once.
Third District Commissioner Chris Abel then asked if the city would reduce water rates as previously promised if they got 100 percent grant funding for the project. Roth said because they wouldn’t be working on all of the lines, even if they received 100 percent grant funding, she didn’t expect rates to go down.
“Even if we received 100 percent grant on these, it’s a great relief and helps us get 336 of them done at no additional cost out of pocket, but then we’d still be using those funds through the rates that we raised to take care of the rest of those service lines,” Roth said. “It just means that we’d try to accelerate that process and have it happen faster than the 20-year target we have right now.”
Mayor Tom Lowry said there is expected to be more state and federal funding to come with regards to water service line replacement, and that the city believes in being “proactive” when it comes to the replacements.
“Three Rivers is one of the few that’s willing to be proactive and start acting now in year two of this 20-year requirement. A lot of places are going to wait until the end; we don’t want to wait until the end because we want to resolve the health issue,” Lowry said. “A lot of people learned a lesson from Flint, and we don’t want to subject our people to that.”
In other business…
- Commissioners approved a detailed site plan for the third phase of the Meadowbrook Farms West development, which included new drawings and a planned exit road in the fourth phase of the project, an addition not seen in previous drawings and was requested by the city back in March.
- Commissioners approved the release of $15,000 from the city’s Precision Wire Maintenance Fund to the River Country Sports Commission for a portion of maintenance expenditures at the Armstrong Park Sports Complex for the park’s 2023 operating season.
- Commissioners acknowledged the first reading of user fee ordinance updates beginning July 1, and scheduled a public hearing on them for their next meeting June 6. The proposed updates include doubling the cost of zoning variances for residential and commercial properties from $75 and $250 respectively to $150 and $500 respectively, as well as an increase in bi-monthly service charges for water and sewer to $40.67 per REU and $61.15 per REU, respectively.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or email@example.com.