Utility Authority gets $5.9 million ‘loan’ for HAWL

Published 2:41 pm Friday, October 2, 2009

Soon residents in Hide-A-Way Lake will be able to hook up to Pearl River County Utility Authority’s waste water system with the recent approval of the Authority’s request for a $5.9 million “loan” from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Mississippi had a total of $74 million of federal stimulus money for waste water projects. So far, MDEQ has approved 14 projects through-out the state.

Utility Authority engineer Brooks Wallace said that the majority of the funds, which are part of the federal stimulus package, although technically a loan, will not have to be paid back. “We have to take the loan,” said Wallace. “At the end of the project, the subsidy kicks in.” That subsidy will be for $5 million, leaving PRCUA with a low-interest loan, 1.75 percent, of $887,394, to be paid over 20 years.

MDEQ spokesman Robbie Wilbur explained the loan process further. Noting that when the stimulus money law was passed, he said each state was given two options on how to disperse the funds. One, he said, was to distribute the money through a grant program. The other was through principal forgiveness. “We do not have a grant program,” said Wilbur. “So we chose the second option — principal forgiveness — that way we can get the money out there sooner than trying to develop a whole new program.”

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Wallace said one of the criteria for being approved was the ability to show the project could be started almost immediately. MDEQ requires approved projects for the stimulus money to be started by Feb. 19. That deadline for the start of the project, said Wallace, is why they decided to use the HAWL project. Noting that they had researched the HAWL project in the past and had all the surveys, crunched all the numbers and done feasibility studies, Wallace said the HAWL project was the one with best chance of approval.

“When we did the original plans for HAWL, there was no grant money,” said Wallace. “And since project approval rested on whether the project could be started right away, we felt it was the way to go.”

Wallace said that once the project is completed, residents of HAWL can decide whether or not they want to hook into the system. The 950 homes in the subdivision each have septic tanks. He said that HAWL would collect the service bills and has agreed to continue to inspect the septic systems within the subdivision. “If they note the system needs extensive repairs, they will offer the option of the homeowner connecting to the system,” said Wallace.

Utility Authority chairman Steve Lawler said that the authority would use the funds to install the infrastructure through-out the entire HAWL development, including the 350 lots that are not built out. “There are 350 lots that do not have buildings because they can not have septic (systems),” said Lawler. Each lot, he said, would have a tap in place in case the homeowner chooses to hook into the system. He said that although the authority did not know exactly the number of homes the funds will allow them to hook-up initially, he hoped that there would be enough money left over for between 250 and 300 residences.

Lawler said the authority also had applied for a $2 million grant through the Governor’s Office, but the status of that application was unknown. “If we get approved for that, we will have enough for anyone who wants to hook up,” said Lawler. “But that’s still a bird in the hand.”

The system will connect with the Picayune Wastewater Collection and Treatment Center from the HAWL development with infrastructure installed from south of the development along U.S. Highway 11 and into Picayune.

According to the memorandum of understanding between the Utility Authority and HAWL, the new system will be in the best interest of the residents of HAWL, possibly giving homeowners a break from costly septic repairs due to aging systems or Mother Nature. “… (it) will also reduce the magnitude and frequency of future expenditures that would otherwise be needed to repair or replace the Individual On-site Wastewater Disposal Systems … that are routinely damaged or destroyed by hurricanes and other natural disasters …” states the memorandum. In the agreement, the Utility Authority agrees to maintain ownership of the lines and be responsible for operating, maintaining and managing the infrastructure of the system. HAWL will collect the billing for each connected home.

While the agreement states that PRCUA can not “mandate each HAWL Development resident” to connect to the system, it adds a caveat. “However, it is understood,” the memorandum states, “that such an agreement may not be binding on any other agency of the state with wastewater regulatory or enforcement authority.”

Lawler said that although the project start date is “very difficult to answer at this moment,” he anticipated it could begin before the first of the year. Noting that the authority had to take a number of actions ahead of time in order to be ready to move forward with the project in anticipation of loan approval, Lawler said those steps were necessary to stay ahead of the game. “When dealing with grant monies, you have to do a lot of things in anticipation of possibly getting the grant,” said Lawler. Things like advertising for bids can be done pre-approval.”

However, said Lawler, before the Utility Authority can move forward, they still must meet with the homeowners’ board of directors for HAWL and fine tune the process. “We still must sit down with the board at Hide-A-Way Lake and discuss (the project),” said Lawler, who anticipated that to complete the project would take “roughly 15 to 24 months.”