Public works funds hanging in the budget balance

The City of Aberdeen has been ordered to fix its sewer plant by the state Department of Ecology, which says that malfunctioning equipment is not in compliance with state laws. Yet, as a separate state agency was preparing to make a loan available to the city to do those repairs, the process was undercut by a proposed state budget released earlier this month that would eliminate the funds.

The whole process has Aberdeen Wastewater Systems Manager Kyle Scott scratching his head.

“We’ve been ordered to fix the sewer plant with a drop-dead date of Dec. 31, 2015, but we don’t have the money to do it and we were really hoping this loan would work out,” Scott said.

When recently departed Gov. Chris Gregorie released her tentative budget proposals, her office cut $70 million worth of public works projects statewide down to $35 million. All of the funds issued would have been in the form of loans paid back by the cities or counties on the list, not grants. And all of the projects had already gone through an application and vetting process.

The City of Aberdeen had received tentative approval of a $1.675 million loan to fix its sewer plant, but Aberdeen didn’t make the cut on the final list released by the Public Works Trust Fund this week.

Also receiving initial approval but not making the cut was $1.677 million to fix up downtown Montesano and the City of Westport also may have lost out on two loans at $232,000 and $341,000 to fix sewer issues.

On the good news side, the City of Westport is still on the list for a $484,100 loan to install a new deep well, and Westport has tentative approval on loans valued at $91,188 for asphalt resurfacing and $183,130 for a citywide chip seal project.

The City of Elma is also made the cut for a $669,700 loan to fix up North 3rd Street.

Of course, the lists could always change, depending on what, ultimately, the Legislature decides to put in its capital budget, where the loans for the Public Works Trust Fund are found. Gov. Jay Inslee plans to release his own budget proposals, perhaps, in March. Plus, the state Senate and House will have their own budget proposals.

During a forum in Aberdeen last week, local legislators told The Daily World they were aware of the potential cuts.

Both Sens. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, and Hoquiam Democrat Jim Hargrove sit on the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee, which will deal with the state’s capital budget.

“I think infrastructure improvements are needed all over the state and the Public Works Trust Fund is one of the best places local governments can go to get the help they need to fund projects,” said Hafield.

“I think nothing you see is final,” added Hargrove. “But we do have to weigh a lot of different priorities so I know I’m not promising anyone anything.”

State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, sits on the House Capital Budget Committee and said he’s already been made aware of the cuts to the trust fund.

“Some cities have no other way to get the funding they need,” Tharinger said.

In January, the City of Aberdeen raised its sewer fees in anticipation of needing the extra revenue for the debt service on its loan from the Public Works Trust Fund. In recent years, the city has used up most of the sewer fund’s reserves in order to keep rates low.

“We’ve got a piece of equipment that’s in the river that’s not functional,” Scott said. “It doesn’t work. And it’s going to be expensive to repair it. Everything is still clean, all of the main equipment is working the way it’s supposed to, but this equipment — we call it a diffuser — isn’t working. The way I explain it to people is the equipment works kind of like the way your thumb works on a garden hose. Basically, instead of spraying the discharge out in a wide dispersal, it’s all flowing out at the same time like a hose without the thumb on it. … And Ecology has ordered us to fix it.”

Scott said the nearly $1.7 million project is so expensive because the outfall is located 200 feet out of the median high water mark on the edge of the shipping channel and most of the work must be done in the water.

Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson sent a letter to Inslee on Tuesday protesting the potential cut.

“I can sympathize with the Governor’s arduous task of distributing competing dollars in the budget-balancing process. However, a reduction of funding from the public works trust fund is a disproportionate blow to small cities such as Aberdeen who need to upgrade infrastructure, improve public health and safety, and respond to environmental issues yet lack the necessary financial support to do so,” Simpson wrote.

John LaRocque, with the Public Works Trust Fund Board, said that the cuts were made based on when projects would start construction.

“We’re continuing to work with Gov. Inslee’s office to see if the funds can be restored,” LaRocque said. “Many legislators have heard of the reduction and have been calling our offices to inquire why the changes were made. While they understood the mechanics, they did not seem pleased with the outcome.”

Scott said he wishes the cuts were based more on merit or need rather than construction date, noting that the work in Aberdeen can only be done at certain times of the year because it takes so long to get the permits from the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Montesano Mayor Ken Estes says that his city had intended to start work in 2014 to do a massive road repair project and to generally spruce up downtown, relying on a combination of Trust Fund loans and city funds. The plan was to use $560,340 to reconstruct Church Street and its roadway, sidewalks and utilities from East Broadway Avenue to East Pioneer Avenue.

Montesano also intended to spend $371,320 to resurface Wynooche Avenue from South Main Street to South Sylvia Street and $745,660 to remove and replace a failed roadway at Pioneer Avenue from South Church Street to South Academy Street.

“We still want to do the first project, but there’s a lot of details to figure out,” Estes said.

Westport Mayor Michael Bruce said the five projects they were hoping to do this year are all separate projects. That means the asphalt work and chip seal could still go on, even without the sewer project that didn’t get funding.

Bruce said the well project that got tentative funds is a pretty important piece of infrastructure for the city.

“We need a new source for our drinking water,” Bruce said.

“We have for years because of issues with the quality of water at times … We’ve been trying to build out utility reserves for replacements and to pay for loans during the past two or three years.”