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Helper's massive rebuild proposal gets CIB approval

Sun Advocate associate editor

Helper City is in line for what may be the largest single commitment of funds in the history of the state's Permanent Community Impact Board.

It is a $19.5 million package of grants and loans to rebuild the city's aging water, sewer and stormwater systems, and to repave the streets when the underground work is done.

"We were all shocked," announced Mayor Dean Armstrong, speaking of the delegation of city officials and engineering consultants who got the word Thursday morning at the board meeting.

"I wish I had already been sitting down when he called to tell me," joked City Recorder Jona Skerl.

Now it is a matter of putting pencil to paper to see how much of the package the city can realistically afford.

The CIB was willing to commit up to $7 million in outright grants and an additional combination of low- or no-interest loans of $12.5 million.

Accepting the full amount would mean committing the city to 30 years of bond payments of about $450,000 a year, said Councilman Gary Harwood.

The calculations, while complicated, will be expedited because the city will not have to start from scratch. Helper has spent at least two years mapping, assessing needs and planning for the rebuild.

Early on, Armstrong - a professional geologist with a background in project planning - had recommended a systemwide approach. That meant gathering data, then analyzing the situation to get the scope of all the repairs and replacements needed.

The city hired Franson Civil Engineering to handle the myriad technical aspects of the surveying and planning.

Meanwhile, the city hiked its water rates and property taxes in anticipation of funding the work ahead. The mayor has been stressing for years that local governments that don't demonstrate the ability to carry their share of the financial load have practically no chance of getting CIB funding. County Commissioner Mike Milovich, a member of the CIB, explained the board's reasoning Friday. The equation for determining a loan amount depends on two basic factors. First is the city's median adjusted gross income (MAGI), the dollar amount at which half the people make more and half the people make less.The second part of the equation is the percentage of the MAGI that is spent on utilities. Water should be 1.75 percent of MAGI, sewer 1.45 percent.

Rates lower than that mean that the city can qualify only for a smaller loan.

Helper's rationale for the extensive rebuild is that cost of the bond payments will be offset by a decrease in maintenance expense. The city's utility department repair work now averages one or two pipe breaks per week at a cost of $2,000 to $5,000 per incident.

In some sections of town, water and sewer lines run side-by-side. Both systems are as old as 70 years in some places, with lead-jointed iron water pipes and old ceramic sewer pipes making up that infrastructure.

A visitor entering town on Poplar Street can look left and right on 100 West to see road patches in front of nearly every building. Each patch represents a pipe break.

Helper has already launched a project to secure and upgrade its water source at springs in the Scofield area. The price tag for that is slightly more than $1 million.

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