MOUNT VERNON — With the first installment from the American Rescue Plan actually in the county's coffers, county officials are looking at potential ways to spend the money.
The first $6.052 million, half of the $12.105 million the county will receive, arrived on June 10. The second $6.052 million will come on June 10, 2022. Federal guidelines restrict the use of ARP money to certain areas:
•Support public health response
•Address negative economic impacts
•Replace revenue loss
•Premium pay for essential workers
•Water, sewer and broadband infrastructure
For the county, the most visible and “shovel-ready” projects fall under water and sewer. Jeff Pickrell, superintendent for water and wastewater, already has plans in place for many of the projects.
“We're taking a high-level look at this point. We can use estimates from the past and put in present-day dollars,” Pickrell said of the list of projects he recently discussed with the county commissioners and County Administrator Jason Booth.
Pickrell grouped the projects into three areas:
•Phase 1 includes “must-do” projects.
•Phase 2 includes “generational” projects.
•“Other” includes projects with potential city/village partnerships.
Regarding Phase 1, Pickrell said, “Some of these things we can grab the ball and run with it.”
Topping the list is a telemetry upgrade/replacement. Telemetry systems monitor and run the water and wastewater plants. Pickrell said the upgrades have been put off for a while because there was no money in the budget, but things have reached a critical point with the current systems.
“The sewer plant at the end of 2022 will be without tech support,” he said.
On the water side, he said the county still has a water loss. New meters reduced a 60% loss to 50%. Noting that there will always be some water loss, Pickrell said he would like to get it to 20%.
“We are producing a lot of water that we are not billing. We now have the infrastructure in place to go to the next step [to find subsurface leaks],” he said. “We'll spend some money up front, but we'll save a huge amount later with a decrease in water loss. If we can solve our water loss, then we are not spending money to treat the water.”
Also ranking high in Phase 1 are pump station rehab/rebuilds and back-up generator installation/replacements. The goal is to make the pump stations as close to fool-proof as possible.
Pickrell said there are several critical areas where trees have fallen and taken out power lines. The Centerburg pump station has frequent power outages; when outages occur, the county has a 1.5-hour response time to that station.
“In a major power outage, sewage backs up into people's homes or into the lake,” he said.
“Several homeowners have asked if they could buy a generator and have the county install it so that they wouldn't have sewage backup anymore,” Booth said. “A lot of this Phase 1 stuff is infrastructure that helps the existing customer base.”
The estimated cost for Phase 1 projects is $1 million.
“In the overall scheme of how many dollars it is, it's not that much,” Pickrell said.
Phase 2 projects include a sewer plant upgrade and sludge removal for Pleasant Valley Acres, as well as extending sewage to Amity. An Amity sewer plant would potentially bring 52 new users online.
Pleasant Valley Acres is located south of Amity and includes Shelley Drive and Pleasant Valley and Behner roads. Pickrell said the two projects would be completed together.
Other potential projects include extending water to Millwood and Danville, line repairs in Centerburg, extending sewer on Fairgrounds Road, and providing sewer services to Knox Lake.
Pickrell said that Millwood residents have requested county water services. Running the line to Millwood would potentially add 52 customers.
Pickrell has had preliminary discussions solely with Danville's engineer about providing water to Danville. If that should happen, the village would maintain its lines but would not have to borrow money to upgrade its plant.
“We think that would be a great partnership,” Booth said.
Sewer service to Knox Lake is a concern of Knox Public Health. KPH is also concerned about the wastewater systems in Mount Liberty, Rich Hill, and Brandon. Millwood also rose to the top of KPH concerns.
Regarding Centerburg's gravity line, the county could make the repairs and then give the line to the village. The village currently bills for and retains the customer revenue.
The number of customers served will play a role in project selection as well as severity of need.
“With ARPA money, there won't be debt to the homeowner,” Booth said. “They will pay a monthly fee, but there won't be any cost [to connect] from the door to the system. This gets customers on the system without debt.
“Debt always affects rates,” he added.
In addition to funding infrastructure, the Knox County Engineer's office could potentially receive some money under the ARPA revenue loss category. The office had a $500,000 shortfall in 2020, and is running a deficit this year as well.
How much help County Engineer Cameron Keaton might get is unclear because calculations are based on 2019 revenue.
“Through June 2021 my budget has revenue loss of $225,000,” Keaton said. “The gas tax increase which went into effect in July 2019 helped to soften the blow of COVID-19; however, this also makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of loss that we are experiencing.
“There are a lot of moving parts here, and we will just have to wait and see what formula the federal/state government comes up with to determine actual loss.”
Booth said the commissioners are also looking to see if ARPA money can help the county's tourism and hospitality sectors.
“Under the negative economic [category], venues that were shut down due to COVID-19 perhaps can get some help,” he said.
The commissioners have not made any definite decisions as to how the ARPA money will be spent, nor have they designated a percentage to any category. They must appropriate the money by the end of 2024 and have until the end of 2026 to spend it.