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How Much Will It Cost to Fix Clarion Borough Stormwater System? No One Really Knows.
That is the biggest takeaway from the recently formed Clarion Stormwater Authority (SWA) and its subsequent stormwater fee that will be charged to borough landowners – both taxed and non-taxed – in a sliding scale depending on the amount of impervious area they have on their property.
A public question and answer session, comments on Facebook and other social media, and appearances in front of Clarion Borough Council suggest that some residents understand the need for the fee, some understand but aren’t wild about the idea of a fee, and others just don’t like the fee no matter the reason.
And, questions still abound, nonetheless, is how much will it really cost to repair, perhaps rebuild, the stormwater system in Clarion Borough which covers 17 miles of piping through the borough, many of which is nearing the end of life, according to SWA engineer Bruce Hulshizer.
No One Knows What the Final Cost Could Be
No one knows what the final cost could be, and that is the problem.
“There is no real hard number for what it is going to take,” said Todd Colosimo Clarion Borough Treasurer and Projects Manager. “We have no idea, ultimately, what our planned projects are going to cost us, even with the budgeted five years that we are doing. Those five years give us a foundation. But, what it is going to cost ultimately down the road, no one can put a good number on that without spending a lot of money. We haven’t done a system analysis. We are going off known problems. Projects we may do are known problems with raw estimates.”
It Could Take Between $5 and $6 Million to Repair the Entire System
Numbers that have been thrown around at various Clarion Borough Council meetings and SWA meetings are that it could take between $5 and $6 million to repair the entire system.
“That is an estimate of the projects we have coming up and what we know of,” Colosimo said. “There really wasn’t a study done. We took regular costs that we thought of. A lot of that could be up or down depending on what it could be. We could easily have that much more to do. There is a list of things we know that are wrong, and our engineers put a cost to it. It can be very small things to big things like Trout Run. Nothing is set in stone.”
Jason Noto, a councilman who also serves as the chairman of the SWA Board, said it is an estimate based on known issues facing the borough when it comes to the stormwater system over the next five years.
“We took and looked at what the most significant issues that we are aware of coming up in the five-year period of time estimating what it is going to cost through an engineer,” Noto said. “Here is what these things approximately are going to cost without digging into the ground and looking. That figure could vary. That is without getting any bid on anything. That is projecting what we think these things are going to cost.”
Colosimo clarified Noto’s remarks saying the higher price tag, the $5 to $6 million one is the entire system, not just the five-year projections.
According to Colosimo, the five-year range is probably more in the $2 to $2.5 million spent on repairs.
At the February 6 public Q&A, Hulshizer said the $6 million figure is for known repairs only.
“We estimate about $6 million in projects,” Hulshizer said. “That is only known projects. That isn’t giving the highest number. We need to investigate the system. It will be updated annually and budgeted around.”
Colosimo said one of the next steps the SWA is going to partake is to do an analysis of the needs of the system.
Former Clarion Borough Council Member Believes Council Should Already Have an Idea of the Cost
One former Clarion Borough Council members, Rich Herman, believes the borough should already have a better idea of what the cost should be.
According to Herman, when the borough sold its sewage system to Pennsylvania American Water about a decade ago, cameras were placed into the system to see the condition of the pipes.
Colosimo, however, said that while he is aware that took place, the estimates the borough are using do not come from any of those pictures, and he isn’t even sure if the borough has a copy of the pictures saying if it does they would be stored in archives.
“We aren’t basing it off any pictures,” Colosimo said. “We have a capital improvements plan and a budget that is based on projects we came up with that we feel are important over the next five years. I have heard they looked at the system, but I have never personally seen that information. Our estimates are based on a project list we maintain and that our engineers analyzed and put cost analysis to.”
Colosimo said in the overall estimates of the project could include the possibility of building onto the system in what he calls underserved areas of the borough.
“A big unknown is a class of projects called the underserved areas,” Colosimo said. “These are areas of the borough that have no stormwater infrastructure at all but probably could need it. It would be a brand new part of the system, and that has yet to be sized or designed. There are quite a few areas in the borough that don’t have any infrastructure. No curves, no piping inlets, no pipes. Those are areas we have to look at it. It’s very difficult to put a number to what that would cost.”
It’s those underserved areas, in part, that the SWA cite as to why borough landowners who don’t currently contribute to the stormwater system should have to contribute to the new stormwater fee even though they aren’t directly benefiting from the current system.
“You have to look at the program as the whole borough’s responsibility,” Hulshizer said. “Even if water doesn’t go to the pipes.”
“It would cost $500,000.00 to map every drop of rainwater and where it goes,” Hulshizer said. “It’s not feasible. A lot happens regardless of whether it goes into the pipes.”
Noto said one of the misconceptions is that the SWA will only be replacing or fixing current stormwater pipes.
“We recognize the system is not adequate to handle all the water,” Noto said. “We want to catch more water than we currently do. The idea is to try to do it with an overall plan to manage the whole stormwater in the borough not just replace the current pipes. You have to look at it as a management program.”
Stormwater Authority Member Says People Might Benefit From System and Not Even Know It
Tom DiStefano, a member of the SWA, said people might be benefiting from the stormwater system and not even know it.
“You may benefit from water that doesn’t flow onto your property because of the system,” DiStefano said.
Following the February 5 Clarion Borough Council meeting, Noto said that is someone’s water didn’t go into the system – something at the time he wasn’t aware of – that the SWA would have to look at it.
“We would have to consider things like that on a case-by-case basis,” Noto said February 5. “That is why we have an Authority, to review those things. No credit policy is going to cover every eventuality.”
The public Q&A Wednesday, February 6, seemed to clarify some of that saying that properties that don’t contribute any water to the stormwater system could get a maximum credit of 25 percent.
Estimated Cost Versus Actual Costs Can Vary
One thing the borough and the SWA are already finding out is that estimated costs vs. actual costs can vary.
An example of that was seen in October when the borough awarded the Center Place Stormwater Project bid to Bison Construction out of Fairmount City, Pa.
Bison bid $881,260.00 for the project which was approximately $218,470.00 lower than the original estimate of the project, which came in around $1.1 million, according to Dave Neill of EADS Group, the borough’s engineer on the project.
The borough received a PennVEST grant/loan combination of around $1.6 million for the project that included $559,346.00 on a 240-month loan that has 1 percent interest across the board, according to Colosimo.
“The cost of the Center Place project is more than just the contract to do the work, which is what the Bison contract is for,” Colosimo said. “It also includes engineering costs, which we are still waiting on.”
Colosimo said the engineering costs on the project could very well be north of $100,000.00.
But, even if that is the case, the $1.6 million PennVEST loan/grant would more than cover that, right?
“The PennVEST funding is also being used to set up the Stormwater Authority,” Colosimo said. “They (PennVEST) saw that as a worthwhile step for us to take and agreed to fund it.”
Colosimo said money from the PennVEST loan/grant can also be used to cover cost overruns in the project, but if there is money left over when everything with Center Place is done, the borough can’t keep that money. It must be returned to PennVEST.
“Money we don’t end up using has to be returned,” Colosimo said. “We could ask them to allow us to use it for other projects, but generally they don’t approve requests like that.”
According to Colosimo, if money is left over from the PennVEST loan/grant, the money will be returned in the 66.4 percent grant, 33.6 percent loan breakdown ratio that it was given to the borough.
Why Doesn’t the Borough Look at Grants/Loans for Future Stormwater Project?
When asked why the borough doesn’t look at more grants or loans for future stormwater projects like Center Place, Colosimo said it will and it does but that money for projects is tight.
“Each project that comes up, we take a look at things that come available,” Colosimo said. “There is not a lot of big money out there.”
Colosimo said that part of what the job of the SWA employee will be to look for funding through grants and loans.
“There are PennVEST loans and private loans,” Colosimo said. “We haven’t done bonds in decades in the borough. But when we find an opportunity, we try to take advantage of it. But with big loans, there is only so much out there at this time. But we do look for stuff. It’s just not that common. There aren’t 100 sources (of money) out there. (Repairs) have mostly been done with taxpayer funding, at least since I have been here the last 10 years or so.”
The Borough Has Money in Reserve for Stormwater Projects
The borough does appear to have some money in reserve that it could use, if it so chooses, for stormwater projects.
A big chunk of that money was from the sale of the borough’s sewage system to PAW about a decade ago. Approximately $1 million from that sale is still in the borough’s coffers broken up into four CD’s, according to Colosimo.
But Noto said using that money would be a one-time drop in the bucket and then it would be gone while projects would still need to be paid for.
“Look at what Center Place is going to cost the borough,” Noto said. “If we were to use that money at this point, it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the needs that we have. That isn’t a way to reasonably be able to cover what we need. We need a better mechanism than that. Because once we use that money then it’s gone and we have done one project. So, that is not a reasonable solution to the problem.”
It has often been cited by both members of the Borough Council and members of the SWA that one of the reasons a stormwater fee is needed is because so few properties actually pay taxes in the borough. All properties owned by Clarion University, Clarion County and non-profit organizations like churches are exempt, by Commonwealth law, from property taxes, but all of those entities will be charged the stormwater fee.
But if that is the case, then why not just reduce the property tax for those who do pay it by the amount they are getting charged for the stormwater fee?
Noto said that isn’t an idea the council wants to take up at this point in time.
“Council did not consider a measure like that at this point,” Noto said. “Keep in mind there is no specific part of the tax base that is designed to pay for the stormwater, the storm-system maintenance, and upkeep. This is kind of an addition because there is no funding for this if we were to refund the tax money. That would crimp services in other areas that we are providing, that we are already stretched.”
Colosimo said money is currently being taken out of the general fund under public works to make repairs when stormwater issues arise.
He said his hope is that money would now be used for paving projects in the borough.
“The big thing I have heard (about what the borough will do with the money it saves on repairing the stormwater system through the SWA) is paving,” Colosimo said. “Paving is one of the big things. Since 2012, we haven’t done a whole lot of paving and when we do the projects are well south of $100,000.00 projects. We try to do a little bit of paving, but the type we do is not ideal. It is more seal coating and overlay vs. outright reconstruction where you mill down and build it back up. That is my idea of paving. Right now, we do repair jobs of 1 ½ to 2 inches. There is no milling, no upgrades.”
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