CDBG funds keep municipal water, sewer projects afloat

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

If there is one thing people in the town of Tiptonville know it’s water.
Sandwiched between a bend in the Mississippi River and Reelfoot Lake, the only natural lake in the state, Tiptonville has relied on water for recreation and tourism for more than a century. The seat of Lake County, Tiptonville also oversees municipal water service that not only provides water and sewer to citizens of Tiptonville but also to the Lake County Jail, the federal Northwest Correctional Complex, and the Port of Cates Landing, an intermodal inland port located on the Mississippi river just north of town that is adjacent to the county industrial park.
To help keep the water flowing, the town has received Community Development Block Grants (CBDG) for water and sewer projects in 2011, 2014, and 2016. Tiptonville City Clerk and Treasurer Fran Hearn said one of the town’s most recent CDBG projects was the result of an issue no one in the town had anticipated cropping up.
“We had to clean out our sewer lagoon because at the prison facility we have here, they were flushing debris that would block up the lagoon,” she said. “We had to dredge the lagoon, and then create something that would both catch the debris and grind it up so it wouldn’t make any more blockages. This wasn’t something we anticipated. If we didn’t have the Community Development Block Grant funds, we would have had to use city funds for this project, funds we needed for other things.”
Kent Robertson, superintendent of the Tiptonville Water Plant, said the system was being overloaded with the dumping of everything from condiment packages to plastic bags to t-shirts.
“We were getting so much non-biodegradable stuff coming through our lagoon system,” he said. “We had to use the money to get our lagoon cleaned out, get rid of the non-biodegradable stuff, and keep it out of the lagoon. We split off the prison water and sewer system through the lagoon – we had to build a line specifically for them – with a screw auger placed at the lagoon to catch and screen everything. It dumps non-biodegradable stuff so it can be safely disposed of and not enter the lagoon.”
Robertson said the project took around five months to complete, and the new system is working well for the city.
“We’re catching a lot more stuff than what I even thought, probably four times more,” he said.
Because of its location between the Mississippi and Reelfoot, Tiptonville is very conscious of its wastewater and water plants and how these systems impact both local customers as well as the tourism and recreation industries in the area. Without the $525,000 in funds from the CBDG program, Robertson said he’s not sure what the town would have done.
“We were getting violations due to the way the lagoon was and how full it was,” he said. “This was going to start causing us a lot of problems. If we didn’t get that funding, I don’t know what the town would have done. Things were going to get very bad for us if we didn’t have money for these improvements. We would have definitely had the EPA and all sorts of state officials here.”
Hearn said the CBDG program has helped Tiptonville finance a variety of projects that might have otherwise eaten into the city budget or just be set aside because there were no funds available. The town received grants for water and sewer projects in 2011, 2014, and 2016 with a total of $1.55 million in grant funds used for these projects during that span.
“We apply for [a grant] every time we can get one,” Hearn said. “We’ve done just about every CDBG project you can. We’ve done the housing and rehabilitation grants several times. In the last few years, we’ve been looking more at our infrastructure, water, and sewer and switched over to applying for more grants that fill those needs. These grants have really helped us upgrade our water and sewer system.”
Water and sewer infrastructure have become headline news in recent years with stories like those of Flint, Mich., causing many across the nation to start questioning what is in their municipal water or sewer system and how it gets to their home. Water shortages, aging infrastructure, and the financial burden of maintaining water and wastewater plants have led some cities to consider getting out of the water and wastewater business entirely.
Water and sewer-related projects account for 75.5 percent of the non-entitlement CDBG projects awarded in Tennessee. Kent Archer, CDBG director for TECD’s Community and Rural Development Division, said these projects become more numerous and more competitive each year.
“We are seeing a trend nationally where there is a lot of aging infrastructure, especially when it comes to water and sewer. You couple that with the fact that there have been decreasing limits on water quality and other limits,” Archer said. “A lot of systems were designed for one era, and so you have to keep up. I think another part is that we have a lot of small communities that have their own systems, so there is very much a need there. We don’t see a lot of sewer line extension line projects each year. We see more water line extensions, especially in areas where there was once widespread use of wells or where the system is aging. Last year, we didn’t have a water loss application where the applicant had under 40 percent water loss, which is due to deteriorating lines.”
Archer said the state looks at different factors before awarding funds depending on what type of water or sewer project a community is seeking grant funds for.
“Under water system and sewer systems we also have water line and sewer line extension type projects, rehabilitation or improvement type projects, and the extending new lines,” he said. “For water line or sewer line extensions, we require that you survey 100 percent of the people that will receive the service. Another factor that goes into these scores are your rate factor. We look at per capita income against what your water or sewer rate is. The idea there is that you are getting a comparison of what the cost burden is of water and sewer rates to what your general per capita income is for that area.”
To help keep grants competitive but still allow smaller communities a slice of the pie, Archer said the state has begun changing the way it considers some projects for funding.
“Two years ago, we split out our sewer system projects where we look at collection system improvements and treatment plants into their own pools,” he said. “Part of that is because we use the TDEC priority list they issue as part of their state revolving fund as a basis for our scoring. Just due to the competitiveness, we were seeing fewer and fewer collection system projects being funded. Since TDEC does us a favor by doing that scoring, we decided to keep that scoring system and just fund those projects separately to make sure both treatment plant and collection system projects are still getting funded.”
Like Tiptonville, water is an important resource both for residents and visitors to LaFollette. Situated in the Powell Valley, the city is located in the path of Ollis Creek, itself a tributary of Norris Lake, a man-made lake created by the Norris Dam on the Clinch River. In addition to recreation and tourism, the nearby Norris Dam has made providing water an important industry for LaFollette and surrounding communities.
LaFollette has used CDBG funds to finance water and sewer projects for decades, according to Finance Director Terry Sweat.
“I have been the finance director for 25 years, and one of my first projects was the administration for a Community Development Block Grant for a sewer project,” he said. “Since that time, we have gotten a block grant just about every two years. We just finished a grant this month for our LaFollette Utilities water plant. We are applying for another one for the water treatment plant as well. Prior to that, all of our projects have basically been for water and sewer lines. A few of these have been new water or sewer lines and others have been replacements. We had some lines that were 30 or 40 years old, and we’ve been trying to replace those.”
The majority of the lines being replaced are in residential areas. Sweat said LaFollette is located in one of Tennessee’s economically distressed counties. While projects are required for at least 51 percent of the residents impacted to be low-to-moderate income residents, Sweat said the percentage of residents impacted by LaFollette’s projects that meet low-to-moderate income standards are usually higher than that.
Without the CBDG funds, Sweat said both the city of LaFollette and the city-owned utility LaFollette Utilities would have been faced with some tough choices about what projects they could fund and where they could find money for projects that needed to be done in the community.
“Some of these projects would not have gone in without CDBG money,” he said. “We have never had to borrow any money for water or sewer line extensions because of CBDG funds. The city usually has two capital outlay notes at the same time, which are used to fund paving and equipment for our city departments. With these funds, we can focus our notes on paving and whatever else we need to do. Sewer and water is a very important issue for citizens. Cities have to provide that, especially if they annex. After so many years, lines begin to collapse so you have to replace them.”