BH eyes major water/sewer upgrades

BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor city commissioners said they need more time to consider an almost $14.5 million project to upgrade the water and sewer systems in several areas of the city.

Officials from the city’s engineering firm, Abonmarche, on Monday outlined why the project is needed and how it could be paid for.

But some commissioners said they needed more time to look over the project. Commissioner Juanita Henry said she just received the packet earlier that day. In addition, the public notice gives people until April 22 to comment on the project. Some commissioners said it’s unfair to approve the project before everyone has had a chance to comment on it.

Copies of the plan can be found during regular business hours at Benton Harbor City Hall and the Benton Harbor Library, both on East Wall Street. Written comments can be sent to City of Benton Harbor, c/o City Manager Darwin Watson, 200 E. Wall St., Benton Harbor, MI 49022.

A special meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on April 29 to consider resolutions approving the final project plan and to designate a project representative from the city.

Plans call for the city to seek low-interest loans from two state programs – the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund (DWRF) for the water projects and the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) for the sewer projects.

If approved, the city will request $4.46 million from the DWRF, which is 30.8 percent of the total project. Another $5 million will be requested from the SRF, which is 35 percent. The remaining almost $5 million, which is 34.3 percent of the entire project, would be paid for with local money.

Tricia Bulson, GIS specialist with Abonmarche, said the projects are a culmination of three studies Abonmarche has been working on since 2014. 

The studies assessed the city’s infrastructure assets based on age, condition and the impact on the community and environment if a certain section of the system failed, she said.

Bulson said local money is needed to pay for parts of the projects not eligible to be paid for by the loan funds.

“When you think about the sanitary pipe under the road, these programs will only fund a percentage of the roadway (replacement) overlying that pipe,” she said.

Bulson said they chose projects where the city would get the best use of its money.

“We looked for areas in town where your water and your sanitary sewer are both high criticality and coincident to each other,” she said.

Daniel Dombos, senior project engineer with Abonmarche, said some of the city’s infrastructure dates back to the early 1900s, with some of it even older.

“That infrastructure is aged out. It’s past its useful life,” he said.

Dombos said truckline sewers that serve other areas run through parts of the city.

“The idea that we’re going to let that go and potentially fail would impact ... a good portion of the city,” he said. “Really, it’s not feasible to consider not doing anything about the infrastructure of Benton Harbor.”

The plan calls for $499,800 in repair work to be done on the Benton Harbor Water Tower at Britain Avenue and 8th Street, which holds 650,000 gallons of water. Dombos said if the water tower is repaired, it is projected to last another 20 years. He estimated the cost to replace the water tower at $5 million. 

The locations of the rest of the proposed projects are:

• Pipestone from Main Street to Vineyard.

• Michigan, Wall and Highland from south of Oak to Jefferson.

• Vineyard from Pipestone to east end.

• Maple from Pipestone to Cedar.

• Highland from Territorial to Highland.

• Territorial from Winans to Seeley.

• Stevens from Riverside to Waukonda.

• Benton Harbor Water Plant on Ridgeway Street.

If the upgrades are approved, officials say water rates for city residents may well rise to help cover costs.

The debt repayment for the DWRF loan is projected to be $213,368 per year for 30 years. 

The debt repayment for the SRF loan is projected to be $242,554 annually for 30 years.

In addition, officials said the city might be able to receive some principal loan forgiveness due to its Disadvantaged Community Status.

Contacted after the meeting, Chris Cook, president and CEO of Abonmarche, said this project is separate from one he presented to city commissioners in February about how the projected $1 million collected from the first year of the city’s income tax could be spent. City commissioners passed a resolution before the income tax was approved by voters that the money would only be used for city streets, sidewalks and alleys and for emergencies.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege