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Helper plans for biggest rebuild in city's history

Sun Advocate associate editor

Helper City is getting ready to embark on what may be the most extensive capital facilities improvement project in the city's history, a $20 million makeover of the town's aging water, sewer and storm water systems.

Plans also call for repaving more than 20 miles of streets after they have been torn up for the underground work. That includes sidewalk, curb and gutter repair and replacement. The whole project will take between three and five years to complete.

Mayor Dean Armstrong, who has spent the past two years coordinating the evaluation and planning, said this is a necessary first step if the city wants to develop its full potential. "Price is the economic engine of the county. It's the county seat. But Helper is the gateway to southeastern Utah," he said. While the city is "postcard pretty," he added, the mundane and mostly invisible improvements to infrastructure are crucial to supporting future developments.

Armstrong did not speculate on what the exact impact would be on utility rates. However, he did say that the city ranks in the bottom quartile of the state's municipal water and sewer rates. That means that more than three out of four cities and towns statewide have higher charges.

"We've done a good job keeping rates low, but there has been an attendant cost to that," he stated. The hidden cost was the gradual deterioration of the city's infrastructure. It means the city is still using lead-jointed iron pipes to carry its drinking water in town. That system also has to maintain more than 30 miles of transmission pipe from its springs near Scofield.

The city is already under way on a $1.01 million project to protect and upgrade the springs and delivery system. It was either that, or face condemnation of half the supply, which would mean Helper would have to pay about $350,000 a year for make-up water from the Price River Water Improvement District.

"So, no, the water isn't free," he declared. "It's priceless, but it isn't free."

Also, with rates so low, Helper would a face a tough - if not impossible - task in getting grants to help finance part of the improvement costs. The Community Impact Board, for example, wants demonstrated proof that each local government it assists is carrying its own share of project costs.

While that means there may be some incremental cost to customers, home and business owners will see an increase in property values as a result of the increase, Armstrong explained.

More than half of the features of the proposed project - more than 60 percent, according to the mayor - are based on recommendations from the state and contract engineers dating back to the 1970s through the 1990s.

All the technicalities will be available for public inspection on March 8 from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Civic Auditorium. A formal engineering briefing from Franson Civil Engineers, the firm hired to design an overall capital facilities plan, will begin at 5 p.m. and run for about a half-hour.

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