After learning that its grant request for a much-needed water project did not score high enough to make the cut, Robbins officials discovered a mistake in a state agency’s determination.
They quickly circled the wagons and successfully made their case Wednesday morning to the State Water Infrastructure Authority, which agreed and voted to award a $2 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to Robbins
“We’ve been working on trying to get this grant for three years,” Mayor Lonnie English said.
“I think our community will be really pleased.”
The grant will be used to upgrade the town’s dated water system to improve water quality and water pressure in the area around Robbins Elementary School.
“This couldn’t come at a better time for us,” said Town Board member Nikki Green, who serves as mayor pro tem. “This is something we have needed for a long time.”
Robbins Town Manager David Lambert says it’s unclear when the funds will be distributed.
“But I imagine we’ll start planning the process as soon as possible,” he said.
Town officials got word late on Friday, Jan. 13, that its project was not among those on the list recommended for funding, citing an “incomplete” application.
Lambert, as well as representatives from its consulting engineering firm, contacted the authority in hopes of resolving questions. On Tuesday, Lambert also enlisted the help of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, which dispatched a letter to the authority supporting the town.
“This is a very important project, a needed project,” he told the commissioners Tuesday night.
Lambert said town staff met with authority officials this summer to identify ways to improve its chances after three previous grant applications were turned down. He said they were told that they met all of the requirements, and that the town felt like it had “a good shot” at getting a grant.
He said the town learned late Friday that it did not make the cut.
“When we heard that the town of Robbins was not included in the department’s recommendation for funding due to incomplete survey data, we were shocked,” Lambert wrote in a Jan. 15 letter to William Ross Jr., acting secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. He added that the town board believes it would be “a grave injustice” for its residents if the grant is not approved.
Lambert said Robbins initially was told that the reason for the denial was because the amount of “looping” lines exceeded the 10 percent maximum allowed under the criteria. But Lambert pointed out in his letter that the state “mistakenly included” a high-pressure transmission line into its equation, pushing the amount to 23 percent.
He added that the town would remove all instances of looping from Gardenia Street if needed.
Lambert noted in his letter that the objective of the federally funded Community Development Block Grant program, which the state administers, is to help low-income residents in “disadvantaged communities.”
“Robbins could very well be the poster child for a program like this,” Lambert wrote. “If this decision stands, .04 percent, or 7 feet of pipe (which was approved prior to the application being submitted), is costing the town of Robbins, a community with a poverty rate of 36 percent, over $2 million in needed water infrastructure improvements.
“This project addresses system violations the town cannot afford, and health and safety issues that threaten the elementary school and low-income residents when the water system is not operating at its optimum performance.”
Vass Denied Grant
While Robbins ended up with a good outcome, that was not the case for Vass, which was seeking a $1.5 million grant for the second phase of a sewer expansion project.
Its application did not score high enough to qualify, according to county Public Works Director Randy Gould. The county owns and operates the water and sewer serving Vass. In hopes of improving the chances of obtaining a grant, the town made the application.
“It is unfortunate,” Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Callahan said Friday morning. “All kinds of forces seem to be fighting against us on this sewer project.”
About half of the town is still without public sewer, with those homes relying on septic tanks. The grant would provide funding to serve low- and moderate-income homes in the northwestern part of town, which account for about half of the remaining unserved area.
The county plans to seek a $1.5 million federal low-interest loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development for the remainder.
It also includes extending a sewer line along Camp Easter Road to serve a new subdivision approved by the county last year, as well as a new elementary school.
County and town officials plan to meet Wednesday to talk about how to proceed.
Gould said one possibility is for the county to proceed with the part of the project that will be funded through the loan, and then try again later this year to obtain grant funding. The county could also include the entire second phase in the loan application, which would require larger rate increases.
Gould told the commissioners at their Jan. 3 meeting that the county would need a “commitment” from residents that they want a sewer on their street, since they would have to pay to tap into it and then pay a monthly charge.
He said they would be repaid through monthly rates charged to customers on the system.
He proposed holding a community meeting with town leaders and residents to explain the scope of the project and which streets would be covered.
“If someone doesn’t want sewer down their road, then it is going to be my recommendation to not put it in the project,” he told the commissioners. Vass has been waiting for nearly 25 years for public sewer after turning over its utilities to the county. The first phase of the project was completed in 2011 at a cost $2.27 million and covered about half of the town.