Bear with me while I attempt an analogy.
Every year five or so people sit around a table. In the center of a table is a pot of money that one or two people get to take home. The only thing you have to do in order to be considered is raise your hand.
And for 11 years, you never raised your hand.
This is the city of London.
But in this analogy the pot of money is no metaphor. It represents real, free money from the Ohio Public Works Commission. It’s money that can be used to partially off-set the cost of local public infrastructure improvements, such as the city’s $12 million water tower and treatment center expansion being paid for by controversial water rate increases for five consecutive years.
Free money: Who wants it?
OPWC awards grants and zero percent interest loans for roads, bridges, water supply, wastewater treatment, storm water collection and solid waste disposal.
Basically, all the expensive stuff local municipalities have trouble paying for.
The money is disbursed to various districts based on population. Madison County is in district 11, along with Clark, Champaign, Darke, Greene, Miami, Preble and Union counties. Historically, Madison County has been able to pull about $1 million in funding each year.
The five people at the table represent the county, London, West Jefferson, Mount Sterling and Plain City. Sometimes other municipalities, like South Solon, Midway or Jefferson Township, sit in and win a project or two.
But London hasn’t applied for a single grant since about 2005. Mayor Pat Closser, who took office in January, recently uncovered the embarrassing fact and shared the news with city council.
The discovery prompts the question: why didn’t the city’s former administration apply for these grants? Did former Mayor David Eades and safety-service director Steve Hume, who essentially served as a city manager, drop the ball?
It appears so.
Last week I called our OPWC district liasion, Louis Agresta, to ask that question.
“I don’t know why they [the city] didn’t apply,” Agresta said. “Maybe they just didn’t know about it for whatever reason. They could’ve received some money, and they haven’t.”
It’s worth noting the largest city in each county sends a representative to the OPWC board. Usually, this is someone from the city manager’s office.
Who was appointed to represent London? Was it Eades or Hume? Or any city employee for that matter?
No. It was former county engineer David Brand.
Agresta said Brand, who died in December, did a great job working with all the municipalities to submit the best projects. Brand took advantage of many of the funds to repair bridges and culverts, which receive the most “points” under the scoring system. The former engineer also served on OPWC’s nine-member executive committee, which decides which projects will be awarded.
But, he didn’t have any applications from the city of London to push through. Because no one from the city was submitting any applications.
Closser recently appointed the city’s new safety-service director, Joe Mosier, to represent London, as well as serve on the executive committee. Closser himself is the alternate.
He told me last week he “absolutely” intends to apply for funding this year, although he’s unsure of what project. He’s kicking around storm sewer and road improvements.
Who got the money?
I’m about to throw out a lot of numbers, but hang with me.
Eleven years ago, the city received nearly $1.2 million to rehab Garfield Avenue. The year before that, the city won nearly $1 million, also for Garfield Avenue rehab.
Then it gets spotty.
About $176,000 was awarded about 19 years ago for the construction of Keny Boulevard and about $250,000 in three funding cycles more than 25 years ago for various sewer projects. Around the same time, the city also won about $450,000 for some engineering on East High Street and a bridge replacement on Lincoln Avenue.
That totals about $3.03 million since the program was established.
In the meantime, the other municipalities have really been raking in the cash. Keep in mind, higher populations are more likely to win the competitive grants, so London should, essentially, have a leg up on the competition, with the exception of the county.
Compared to London’s 11 projects:
• The village of West Jefferson has been awarded for 16 projects for a total of $5.46 million. Most recently, the village received about $270,000 for waterline replacements in 2015; an astounding $800,000 for street improvements at Westwood Estates in 2014 and a huge win of about $1 million in 2013 for wastewater treatment plant improvements (as well as a $75,000 low interest loan for the same project).
So, a village with roughly half the population of the city has received nearly twice the money.
West Jefferson has been hustlin’.
• Mount Sterling has won about $2.29 million, including $205,800 in 2014 for paving and storm sewer improvements.
• Plain City has been awarded about $1.06 million. Most recently it received about $322,000 three years ago for water main improvements.
• The county has been awarded $9.72 million for 36 projects, most recently $400,000 last year for a bridge replacement on Taylor-Blair Road.
I often hear city officials and locals discuss two infrastructure needs, one of which I already mentioned: improvements to the water plant. The city is currently undertaking a $12 million project to build a new water tower and treatment plant on State Route 142. These facilities will be used in addition to the current tower and plant.
London BPU plans to pay for the project by borrowing the money from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Officials are finalizing an application for the 22-year loan with a 1.22 percent interest rate.
They’re really excited about that rate. But you know what’s better than 1.22 percent? Zero percent.
The city could have applied for a $1 million loan from OPWC with zero interest to help offset EPA financing. (OPWC only awards smaller loans and could not have financed the entire project.)
London’s water system users will pay for the plant over time, which BPU members say require water rate increases on London’s 3,700 water customers. Monthly water bills increased 15 percent in 2014, with another 15 percent in 2015. Additional 15 percent increases are also projected in 2016 and 2017, as well as another 3 percent increase in 2018.
Could some of those increases been avoided if OPWC grants would have been explored?
That’s speculation, of course, but maybe.
The other project I often hear mentioned is connecting U.S. 42 and State Route 142 at Eagleton Boulevard. Officials have said that road would stretch to the Stanley Electric expansion, triggering more economic development and relieving Keny Boulevard of some truck traffic.
Would that construction be eligible for OPWC funding?
Yes, said Agresta. New construction is not as likely to be awarded as improvements, although it has been awarded in the past, he noted.
It’s time for London to raise its hand.
Andrea Chaffin is the editor of The Madison Press. She can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1619 or via Twitter @AndeeWrites.