Mount Airy could be headed back to the drawing board after missing out on a $2 million federal grant – for the second year in a row – to fund much-needed water/sewer line replacements.
The federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) was targeted for the Maple Street-Merritt Street area, where aging water and sewer lines are prevalent and failures have occurred. The installing of new ones there ranks number one on a priority list for long-range water-sewer rehabilitation projects to address older utility lines in town, with the grant aimed at keeping the local taxpayers from footing the huge cost.
Despite the well-documented need, the Maple Street-Merritt Street project totaling $2.3 million – for an area also including Pippen and Porter streets – must wait at least another year where federal funding is concerned. That’s due to Mount Airy’s grant application not scoring strongly enough compared to winning ones submitted by other communities.
“We did submit (an application) and did not score enough points for the grant,” City Manager Barbara Jones confirmed.
This occurred despite Mount Airy taking special steps to secure the highly competitive federal funding, including opting to pay up to $12,000 to an Asheville consulting firm, Martin-McGill Inc., to assist with last year’s application process. This was in addition to enlisting the in-house talents of city Community Development Coordinator Martin Collins, who has engineered a number of successful grant requests in the past.
Mount Airy officials also pared down the grant application to include only the Maple Street-Merritt Street neighborhood, which had been joined early on by a section including the former Spencer’s industrial complex.
“It’s the right area,” Collins said of the focus on the Maple Street-Merritt Street vicinity.
Priority for grant awards largely is based on the financial condition of residents to be served, with that neighborhood meeting income criteria along with having aging lines.
Nearly 70 percent of residents in the Maple Street-Merritt Street project area are low-and moderate-income individuals, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The good news is that the city came much closer to receiving the funding in the present grant cycle than when it initially applied for the funding in 2015.
“Last year was our first year, and we finished near the end of the pack,” Collins said Monday of the earlier grant result announced in 2016.
“The city did much, much better this year,” he added regarding the most recent application. “We were out of the funding (loop), but considerably better.”
Mount Airy’s grant application scored near the cut-off point for projects awarded CDBG funding. “We improved considerably,” Collins said.
Why city lost out
In terms of factors that keep Mount Airy from receiving the funding, the community-development coordinator mentioned the lack of an asset inventory and assessment (AIA), which those communities that are receiving CDBG grants have.
That factor was good for 10 points in the grant-scoring system.
“It’s very costly to put together,” Collins said of the asset inventory and assessment, which carries a price tag of $150,000 to $300,000.
Among other benefits, an asset inventory and assessment establishes a rating system to show local officials which utility facilities should be addressed, including those with a high rate of failure.
“It’s a very complex process,” Collins said of the assessment that Mount Airy previously sought grant funding to provide – which also was denied.
Mount Airy officials did approve a 20-year water and sewer capital improvement plan last September aimed at improving the grant’s chances of success, which listed the Maple Street-Merritt Street neighborhood as a high priority.
Another factor for the application’s denial relates to the integrity of the present supply, according to Collins.
“We didn’t have significant water loss, which is another place you can pick up some points,” he explained. That’s despite water lines in the Maple Street-Merritt Street neighborhood mostly dating to the 1930s.
The city manager indicated that Mount Airy might seek the Community Development Block Grant funding for a third year, and perhaps the grant managers will look more favorably on the municipality then.
“My hope is that we can evaluate and learn what they felt we were lacking and submit a grant that is successful the next round, which is this fall,” Jones added.
In the absence of grant funds, city officials have been budgeting about $600,000 annually for water and sewer line rehabilitation.
Jones said Monday said the municipality is “making some progress” at that rate of funding, but indicated more could be done to ensure the city does not fall behind.
Collins said it would be good to get the utility lines in the neighborhood in question replaced before additional problems are encountered there.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.