Members of the Benld City Council on Monday night approved a resolution authorizing the city’s engineering firm, HMG Engineers, to apply to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for a federally funded Community Development Block Grant in the amount of $550,000 for a sewer improvement project on the city’s east side. Additionally, the council approved a new rate schedule for sewer and water services to meet eligibility requirements for the grant program.
Once again, the council met in the Benld Civic Center to allow attending aldermen and city officials to observe social distancing protocols required due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the public and media were permitted to participate and observe via the Zoom online video conferencing platform. Ald. Brian Frensko and Ald. Teresa Tucker, whose resignation letter was presented later in the meeting, were absent.
The council voted unanimously to approve the resolution on a motion by Ald. Mickey Robinson, seconded by Ald. Jim Tilashalski.
The action was preceded by a 20-minute public hearing held prior to convening the regular meeting during which Justin Vonder Haar, an engineer with HMG, presented details of the grant application and the proposed project. Vonder Haar told the council the maximum amount for which the city can apply is $550,000, which falls short of the estimated $800,000 total cost for the project. Previously, Vonder Haar advised the city it can apply for successive grants, seeking a second grant of $550,000 during next year’s grant cycle to fully fund the project.
The proposed project calls for replacing about 3,400 feet of substandard sewer line and installing a lining product inside another 1,600 feet of sewer line. Additionally, the project will include replacing 17 manholes.
In addition to the $550,000 in grant funds, the city expects to spend an estimated $52,805 from the city’s Sewer Fund for engineering costs and grant administration.
The city’s application for Community Development and Assistance Program (CDAP) grant funds was rejected in 2015 because the project’s target area does not represent an area where more than 51 percent of the households are low and/or moderate-income households. Eligibility for the Community Development Block Grant program is not contingent upon income levels in the project area. Still, Vonder Haar, reported that an estimated $309,045 of the grant funds would directly benefit low or moderate-income households. That fact is expected to bolster the city’s chances of being approved for the grant.
Vonder Haar said the city could be notified as early as October whether or not the grant application is approved. If the application is approved, Vonder Haar said construction could begin around April or May 2021.
Later in the meeting, council members spent several minutes discussing several options for raising sewer rates to meet the grant program’s eligibility requirements before settling on a formula calling for an increase in sewer rates coupled with a slight reduction in water rates, along with the elimination of a maintenance fee currently charged to consumers. Council members voted unanimously to adopt the rate schedule on a motion by Ald. Dustin Fletcher, seconded by Lance Cooper.
Under the new rate schedule, customers will pay a minimum bill of $12 for water and $7 for sewer for usage of up to 1,000 gallons. Users who consume 2,000 to 5,000 gallons will pay an additional $7 for water and $7 for sewer for each 1,000 gallons in excess of the first 1,000. Users who consume in excess of 5,000 will pay $7 for water and $1 for sewer for each 1,000 gallons in excess of 5,000.
Previously, Mayor Jim Kelly had indicated the city should be able to reduce water rates after signing a new 40-year contract with the City of Gillespie to supply water at a lower rate. The lowered water rate coupled with the sewer rate increase should result in total bills that will be only minimally higher for most city water and sewer customers.
During the public hearing, former Ald. Peyton Bernot had questioned Vonder Haar about whether or not the sewer rate increases would remain if the grant application fails.
In the event the grant is not awarded, Vonder Haar said his recommendation would be to leave the increased rates in place.
“If you apply for a grant next year, you’d have to go through it (raising the rates) again,” Vonder Haar said. “I would recommend not lowering rates to the previous level, but that’s not my decision.”
Bernot also pressed Vonder Haar on whether or not HMG Engineering looked at other agencies that might offer grants without requiring the city to increase rates.
“The Community Development Block Grant is the grant program HMG feels is most applicable to Benld and the one Benld has the best chance of getting,” Vonder Haar said. He said the firm always is open to looking at other grant programs but he advised against filing multiple applications for grants the city may not be likely to be considered for. “You don’t want to just apply, apply, apply, because that process costs money.”