By Rhonda Parker
St. Augustine – Mayor Joe Boles, Jr. called it “a risk,” while Commissioner Errol Jones called the commission’s approval to put forward $390,000 in a cost-sharing venture with the county to secure a state loan which they hope will lead to sewer lines for economically disadvantaged West St. Augustine “more like a layaway plan.”
The money will come from Utility Fund reserves, and actually, as Public Works Director Martha Graham explained, the money for feasibility study is required by the state to secure a $1.8 Million loan for pre-construction funding, which they hope in turn could lead to Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money of about $8.8 million toward the estimated $24 million it would require to actually complete the project.
Only if the project is found to be feasible would the money be paid back by the state, Graham said. If not, both the city and county would share in the liability, she said.
“The feasibility study is what will tell us whether we can put the project online,” Graham said.
The city and county are currently negotiating with the Tallahassee consulting firm of Black and Veatch to find additional funding sources, and hope to seek the CDGB grant for the project in 2012. Other funding possibilities include a state revolving loan or other funding from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The other part of the agreement, Graham said, will be to adopt a connection policy.
Enter the tricky part – and the biggest concern expressed by city staff – how people already living in the “blight” required for block grant funding will afford connection to sewer lines?
By staff estimates, there are 83 households in the West St. Augustine neighborhood currently not connected to a sewer system, and another approximately 15 homes that don’t have water or sewer.
“The city is committed to provision of services, but at this time, there is no mandatory hook-up in that part of the county,” City Manager John Regan said. “The situation is difficult, due to costs that would be involved to residents, but we will try our best to address this.”
City Attorney Ron Brown commented, “If we are going to go into debt by $20 million, we need to make sure we get a return on our money.”
Commission members discussed the potential for loan “forgiveness” by the state, which has precedence when a situation involves state revolving loans and CDBG funding – however, Brown pointed out this would be based on the ability to actually put residents on-line with the sewer system, once in place.
“The only way this thing is going to work is if people can afford to hook up,” Boles added.
Jones emphasized that he was thinking of the initial expenditure as “layaway plan” rather than a risk or gamble.
“A grant is always great. Or we can work out a loan payment plan that can be paid over time,” Jones said.
Citizens from the neighborhood who came out to express their support of the initial funding step applauded when the motion was unanimously approved by the commission.
Rev. Trudye Thompson of Dawson Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church said she was pleased the city had “reached a point of action on this issue.”
Thompson had addressed the commission before the vote and pointed out that – based on St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce estimates – the average income for households in the neighborhood was $16,000, versus the average of per capita income of $35, 133 in other parts of the city.
“Many are surviving on less,” Thompson said, adding that a sewer system could prevent cumulative health issues and spur economic development.
St. Johns County Commissioner Ken Bryan spoke on behalf of the county but also as a city resident. He also brought up health problems in the neighborhood and cited a study done as a project by Murray Middle students who tested water samples in the area and found that 58.8 percent of the samples contained coliform bacteria (fecal contamination).
“This is a quality of life and a health issue,” Bryan said.
With many residents unable afford septic tanks or necessary renovations to existing septic systems, a nationwide average cost for sewer line connections to residences is between $2,500 – $3,500.
Informative link on sewer line hookups and estimated costs for residents
Jones suggested that hook-up cost could potentially be spread over period of time for residents to reduce the financial burden.
“I think it’s important that we move forward on this. It’s taking a chance, but these residents have been waiting years for this project.”
Thompson also said, “This is a first step in the right direction. Like the old saying goes, “if there’s a will there’s a way.”
Community Redevelopment Agency Chair Greg White also stated after the vote, “I believe the city’s doing the right thing. We’re very pleased with the decision on behalf of residents here tonight.”
For more information on FDEP and their Clean Water Act and low-interest state revolving loans: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/water/wff/dwsrf/
HUD Community Development Block Grant: http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/comm_planning/communitydevelopment/programs