The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

November 13, 2013

Sewer aid unlikely before 2015

JOHNSTOWN — The actual timeline for the creation of a program to help low-income residents pay for connecting to Johnstown’s new sewer system is different than what was publicly announced last week.

City officials plan to submit a request for 2014 Community Development Block Grant funds to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday. As part of an overall $1.2 million package, Johnstown will ask for $133,302 to assist qualifying individuals when they tap into the system.

HUD will review the request and decide to either accept, reject or modify it. Any approval likely would come no earlier than the spring of next year, according to Renee Daly, the city’s economic development director. Money would be delivered to the city in the late summer or early fall. Therefore, any program to help residents pay for costs probably would not begin until 2015.

On Nov. 6, City Manager Kristen Denne accidentally announced a more abbreviated timeline, saying the money would be available on Jan. 1, during a town hall meeting inside Greater Johnstown High School’s auditorium. Since then, City Hall has received numerous phone calls from residents hoping to join the program within the next few weeks.

“We just really wanted to get the right time frame out there,” said Daly when discussing details of the plan.

If HUD grants the full request, Johnstown would collect enough money to help about 45 customers cover some of their costs.

Applicants would need to meet income requirements, based upon a scale of extremely low, very low and low.

There would be different thresholds for one-, two-, three- or four-person families.

For an example, a family of four with a combined income of $16,850 would qualify as extremely low, based on 2013 income limits. Very low and low would be $28,100 and $44,950, respectively. Those guidelines likely will be similar next year. Extremely low qualifiers would be able to have 75 percent of their construction projects covered by CDBG money, up to $3,000. Very low and low qualifiers would receive 50 percent.

Residents would be able to apply once they received notice that work is scheduled to begin in their neighborhood within a year.

“What we don’t want is the funding to pay for somebody to get the work done now and the project isn’t actually hitting their neighborhood or their street for another eight years,” said Daly. “We want it to be that our funding is available to those that are immediately going to actually be hit with the sewer project within that year.”

The city also plans to apply for $500,000 in grant money from Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, as opposed to creating a Revolving Loan Fund, which was originally publicly announced last week. If Johns-town gets the money, qualified applicants would receive grants to help cover the tap-in costs.

“It’s still very preliminary. ... We really don’t know if we’re going to receive the money yet,” said Josh Summits, the city’s economic development coordinator.

The average cost of tapping into the system is $2,500 to $3,000, according to the city’s engineer, Steve Sewalk of The EADS Group. The expense varies depending on several factors, including the amount of excavating, lateral lines and rebuilding needed, along with the price of pressure tests. Estimates reaching $15,000 have been reported.

Johnstown’s sewer replacement project got underway when the city entered a consent agreement with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in July 2010. The document required the city to eliminate all of its sanitary sewer overflows without giving specific instructions about how that should be accomplished.

City Council considered three options: building a new plant at a cost of approximately $500 mil- lion; installing neighborhood holding tanks for upwards of $150 million; and replacing all main lines for slightly more than $100 million.

The board chose the third option, while also ordering customers to connect into the system. The consent agreement required every property to conduct smoke and/or dye tests on its lines. Johnstown mandated the more expensive and more effective pressure testing, which has resulted in many older lines failing and, therefore, leading to higher construction costs.

Johnstown felt the pressure tests were needed to make sure it could effectively get rid of the sanitary sewer overflows and avoid huge DEP fines.

“If we don’t seal these overflows off by 2022, there are other fines,” said Sewalk. “The levels of fines would increase greatly. We could see a half-million to a million dollars a year in fines if we let that go. And they’re not going to let it go. They’re going to increase the fines and call the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), the real bad guys, and keep raising those fines until you actually do something.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.

 

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