(Photo by Richard Irby)
"We had one of these public hearings almost five years to the day in regards to this same project," Mayor Bob Barnes said as a hearing began at City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 17, to outline the project that is finally taking shape.
Mitzi Hargan, of White River Planning and Development, explained the key to adding new sewer lines to the city has been obtaining enough federal and state grants to pay for three-fourths of the project, so a loan to cover the rest of the cost would be affordable to residents who will receive sewer service.
"We've been in a pool, trying to get as much grant money as we can in order to keep the (sewage) rates as low as possible," Hargan said. "We've had to apply every year because the state only funds roughly two or three sewer projects a year," Hargan said. "We kind of had to wait until Horseshoe Bend's turn came."
That patience paid off. Under the financial plan that was outlined, the Arkansas National Resources Commission will provide a $1.3 million grant.
The USDA Rural Development Office will provide a grant of about $500,000, requiring the city to get a low interest USDA loan of just $400,000.
"You're getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-cents on the dollar free (grant) money to build this," Bob Chapman, the design engineer for the project said. "Without that, you can see what your rate might be. It would be expensive."
Most of the residents who attended the hearing were from Ward 2 in the city, the area where the sewer expansion will take place. The project area will run from Cardinal Street, to the north, down to the airport area. 135 to 140 homes in that area will receive sewer service.
That area of the city has chosen because a state health department survey found that 62 of 128 homes had septic systems that were not working properly. In addition, 51 percent of residents in the project area had low to moderate incomes, qualifying the city the maximum grant amounts.
Mayor Bob Barnes believes the sewer expansion will bring a big economic benefit to the city.
"Many of the undeveloped lots in that area, including some by the golf course, have not been developed because there is a lot of limestone underneath and the lots won't perk to allow septic systems," the Mayor said. "Once the area has sewer service, undeveloped lots will be more valuable and attractive for development."
Once the USDA finalizes the grants and loans the city will receive, the project will be put out for bid.
"You won't be seeing a contractor digging next week," Haragan said. "It's going to be several months before we get to that point."
Project designer Chapman explained, because the project area is so hilly, so "up and down," a conventional gravity system cannot be built. Instead, a low pressure collection system will be put in.
At each home, the septic system will be unhooked and filled with sand. Near it, a covered basin will be built into the ground to hold a pump.
Sewage will flow from each house into the basin where the pump will send the flow into force mains. Two pumping stations will be built to move sewage in the expansion area to the city's wastewater treatment plant.
"The city had a project a year and a half ago to upgrade the sewer treatment plant," Chapman explained. "We added a clarifier, so we could adequately treat the (additional) waste going through the plant."
Chapman called the new system the best the city could afford and admitted it had a drawback. When the electricity goes out, sewage will not flow to the treatment plant. In a prolonged power outage, like the one caused by the 2009 ice storm, portable generators will have to be used to pump out sewage basins outside homes.
Chapman also admitted putting in sewer lines and basins will cause "some disturbance" to residents, but he pledged that contractors would try to put their yards back like they found them.
During a question and answer session, residents expressed some concern about heavy equipment digging in their yards, especially those who have underground watering systems that may be in the way as trenches are dug.
Others worried that they would face hidden costs as their homes are hooked to sewers.
"The $2.2 million, is that going to cover everything?" one homeowner asked. Does that include the sand that goes into the septic tanks? Does that include all the piping from the house to wherever, and the wiring to the pump?"
Chapman said all of the installation costs have been built into the project budget and residents should face no costs unless their electrical system is inadequate or there is improper plumbing under their house.
Once the system is up and running, homeowners will pay a basic sewer bill of $26 to $28 a month for the first 4,000 gallons. City residents who already have sewer service currently pay a basic rate of $21.50 a month.
While not all residents are happy with switching from septic systems to sewers or are looking forward to being caught in a construction zone for six or seven months, most seem to agree it is a "done deal," as one resident said.
"We've very excited for you to have this opportunity to get public sewers and to be able to have it at this grant-loan ratio," Haragan said. "I guarantee you there are a lot of cities and towns that would like to be in your position."