Council does about-face on sewer project in 4-3 vote

BURTON — In a split vote July 20, the city council sent a proposed five-year, $15 million sewer repair and reconstruction project to its finance committee, foregoing the opportunity to qualify for a low interest bond program with the state this year.

But on July 24, at a special meeting called at 1 p.m. for the council to reconsider the earlier decision, councilmembers voted 4-3 to approve the plan.

Council Vice President Steve Heffner, and City Councilmembers Tina Conley and Tom Martinbianco voted against the proposal because it would increase sewer rates. The trio indicated they would rather city the city take a different approach to funding that would have spread out the work over a greater period of time.

The original 4-3 decision came July 20 after a public hearing where Stantec consulting representative Dima El-Gamal outlined a plan for the city to repair and upgrade its aging sanitary sewer system over five-years, at a cost of approximately $3 million a year.

El-Gamal said the city would need to approve the proposal as soon as possible to have it into the state by Aug. 1 for approval this year.

The urgency of the proposal prompted pushback from City Councilman Tom Martinbianco, Conley, Heffner and Danny Wells, who reversed his decision at the July 24 meeting. Those opposed also objected to the looming Aug. 1 deadline which they said did not give them enough time to properly consider the plan.

In the end, the council voted July 20 to send the proposal to the Finance Committee for discussion before sending it back to the council with a recommendation, steps that would have made the project impossible this year.

The $15 million needed for the project will come from the State Revolving Fund in the form of low interest bonds over a 30-year period.

At 2.125 percent for the 30-year loan, the project will go through design this fall, with bidding during the winter, loan closure in the spring and construction beginning on the first phase in the spring of 2021.

El-Gamal said Burton’s 231 miles of sewer and 10 pumping stations, with regional treatment by the Genesee County Drain Commissioner District Water and Waste Services, has been in use since the 1960s and is beginning to deteriorate in some places.

“We were looking at the system’s inflow and there’s water coming into your system, water from rain and storm events that should not be in your system,” said El-Gamal. “There is a lot of inflow and infiltration, you should not have ground water and storm water in the sewers.”

Stantec’s study of the Burton sewers determined Infiltration and Inflow (INI) is happening throughout the system.

The average sanitary flow for Burton sewers is 2.4 million gallons per day, while groundwater was entering the system at 1.53 million gallons daily. El-Gamal said with a rainwater event, that number surges up to 24.51 million gallons daily.

“That’s a huge jump from 2.4 million to 24 million,” said El-Gamal. “This tells us there’s a lot of rainwater entering the system. There is an INI issue.”

The plan will address areas of the system considered bad, rated a 4 or 5, since anything with that rating qualifies for the SRF funding. Anything else in the system would have to be done by the city, from its sewer fund or would have to wait for further deterioration before it too could qualify for funding, she said.

Repayment of the bonds will mean sewer rate increases over the five-year period of the project, ranging monthly from .70 cents to .78 cents for metered users and .91 cents to $1.01 for unmetered users.

Martinbianco said he thought it would be a better plan for the city to take the $14.7 million it currently has in the city’s sewer fund and use that to pay for the repairs.

DPW Director Charles Abbey, however, said the city needs the sewer fund balance to use toward repairs and emergencies that may arise that would not be covered by the state funding.

“With the interest rate being so low, making that or better on our investments right now, we would have cash on hand for dealing with structural failures,” he said.

El-Gamal said the SRF bonds would allow the city to do the work needed on the most deteriorated portions of the system without touching its fund balance. This would reserve that money for anything that does not fall inside the program’s eligibility.

“It is important to realize we are not doing a fix-all for the system, this is just one solution because your system needs a lot of work,” she said. “And the $15 million will not do the job without support from your (sewer) fund.”

Councilman Vaughn Smith disagreed with Martinbianco, saying he sees having the ability to obtain the low interest bonds and paying it back with small rate increases as a way to keep the city ahead of the game.

“The sewer problem isn’t going to go away just by wishing it away,” said Smith. “I don’t want to see us, or anyone down the road have to come up with a solution and us not have the money. So, from a financial perspective, what I’m seeing, and from a perspective of keeping our city ahead of the game, so to speak, with our sewers.”

Smith warned that the city went through a similar repair program with its water system after it was in such dire shape that the council had no choice but to approve the project. He suggested the council not allow the same thing to happen with the sewers.

At the July 24 special meeting, Heffner complained about Mayor Duane Haskins calling the meeting just four days after the council had voted against the plan.

Abbey said the administration wanted the council to be able to hear from Burton Utility Supervisor Dave Marshke, someone who deals with the sewer system daily.

“I’m not going to sugar coat this,” said Marshke. “I’ve been here 23 years dealing with this animal, this sewer system, I know the problems, I deal with them every day.”

Marshke discussed costly repairs made to the system on a regular basis, citing a recent repair at Lapeer and Vassar roads in which a pipe 20 feet beneath the ground collapsed and required a nearly $40,000 repair job.

“If you choose to take a different path, it’s going to nickel and dime us to death,” said Marshke.

Wells, who changed his vote July 24, said he needed to hear more information before being able to make a proper decision and he likened this decision to the one the council had to make several years ago regarding the failing water system.

In the end, Wells voted to go ahead with the project, giving the administration the four votes needed to proceed with the project.

Smith and Councilman Dennis O’Keefe argued at both meeting the sewers needed the work and warned of further failures if the city’s infrastructure was not maintained.

“I’ve read this proposal and again let’s get back to the commonsense factor. We’ve got a system that’s not 50 years old, but going on 60 years old in some areas, and I‘ll tell you one thing, just like the water, we did the right thing there, we were proactive,” said O’Keefe. “We’ve got to be pro-active on this. We have to do this. You can borrow that money really cheap, in five years you might not be able to do that. Save our money for what is not covered.”