Letter from Mayor Martin and Q&A regarding Capital Improvement Plan

    Capital Improvement Plan

    Fellow Citizens of Havre de Grace,

    For the last 24 months, the Water and Sewer Commission has worked diligently to identify and develop a practical and affordable plan to address the City’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.

    The members of the Water & Sewer Commission include our own citizens and neighbors that have varying backgrounds and expertise in these matters. Members include Mr. Dan Wusinich, former Council members Mr. Garrett Lyttle and Mr. Fred Cullum, Mr. Harry Miller and Mr. Bill Russell; along with City Staff and Council members including Council Member Jason Robertson and Council Member David Martin, DPW Director Tim Whittie, Chief of Staff Steve Gamatoria and  Finance Chief Tracy Conaway.

    Council President David Glenn held public work sessions on September 12, 2019, October 8, 2019, and October 22, 2019 to allow dialogue among the Members of the City Council, City Administration and Water/Sewer Commission to discuss a long term Capital Improvement Program plan, including funding options.

    To assist our citizens with better understanding these challenges, I have included a map of the number of water main breaks throughout the City since 2016, and a Q&A document that may help to explain where we are in this process and available options to address the infrastructure needs that would be the most affordable to our citizens.

    One such funding mechanism would be to seek bond funding which, by City Charter, will require a referendum vote to obtain citizen approval. The referendum vote could take place during the regular May 2020 election or by a special election in early January 2020. At this time, the January 2020 special referendum vote is preferred by the Commission, Council and Administration because it would allow the City to enter the bond market earlier (March-April issuance), rather than wait until an October- November bond issuance.

    Thank you for taking the time to understand what is at stake and working towards accomplishing a solution.

    William T. Martin, Mayor

    Questions and Answers

    1) What is meant by ‘infrastructure‘?

    Infrastructure includes any part of the Water and Sewer System that creates clean, safe drinking water, delivers the water throughout the City, collects the wastewater from throughout the City, processes (cleans) the waste water, and returns the processed waste water to the Chesapeake Bay. This includes, the Water Treatment Plant (WTP), the Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), water and wastewater pumping stations, fire hydrants and of course all the pipes and valves along the way.

    2) How old is our infrastructure?

    Our infrastructure is constructed [in part] every year. In some of the older parts of the City (St John Street, North Washington Street as an example), the water mains are 120+ years old; Recently, a water pipe was removed from the Ontario Street/North Adams Street area that was from 1904.

    3) How do you know the system is in need of large repairs?

    There have been an increased number of breaks occurring ‘city-wide’ over the past several years. The type and cause of the failures indicate a deterioration of the water distribution system. Video camera footage from engineering studies performed confirm wear and tear to an extent that large sections of pipe are in need of replacement, and the expected useful life of many components has been reached. The most recent 2018 City water audit identified an unaccounted water loss of 18 % of our total water production. This was an increase of about 11% as compared to the 2017 water audit which revealed only a 7% loss. That 18% loss costs the water and sewer fund about $615,000.00 to produce.

    4) Is there a risk of a catastrophic failure within our system?

    There are no known imminent catastrophic failures within the City’s infrastructure. The City constantly monitors the entire water and sewer system to identify potential failures and minimize system down time. While there is no realistic or absolute guaranty against some kind of system failure, City employees constantly perform preventive maintenance and monitor all systems throughout the City. The City also has on-hand the critical components needed to address failures on a timely basis.

    5) Should we be worried about the Fire Hydrants working when we need them?

    Absolutely not. The City’s fire hydrants are an integral part of the City’s water and sewer system. The City continues to execute the planned replacement of the fire hydrants to ensure they can be counted on when needed. Further, the Susquehanna Hose Company (SHCO) scored 47.17 points out of a total of 50 available points as part of the International Services Office (ISO) rating system’s measurement of available water supply within a community. ISO ratings are often used by insurance companies as part of their formula to determine homeowner’s insurance premiums. The SHCO’s ISO score is among one of the highest in the United States.

    6) How come the City has not been pro-active and replaced the infrastructure over the years as needed?

    The City operates its water and sewer system as an ‘Enterprise Fund’, or as a stand-alone business. The City Charter mandates that the Water and Sewer Fund be self-supporting. As a result, the City can generate revenue in the Water and Sewer Fund from the users of the system, or from County, State and Federal subsidy programs. Over the past 3 years, the City has spent, on average, over $1.2 million per year on capital replacement projects in the Water and Sewer Fund. Further, the City borrowed $2.4 million to make repairs and upgrades to the Water Treatment Plant.

    The City was very pro-active with the updating of the Waste Water Treatment Plant in 2006. At that time, a bond bill was taken out to cover the debt service to pay for the Federal/State mandates, as well as to upgrade the Wastewater Treatment Plant for future growth. That bond has about 7 years left at a cost of $2.4 million annually. The original plan was to use anticipated new connections to the system to fund the debt. That plan had a fatal flaw (it required about 130 new users to come on board each year). Since the recession in 2008, the required connection numbers have only been achieved one time.

    Since taking over in 2015, the Martin administration has identified three distinct elements to address the continuing deficit in the Water and Sewer Fund; (1) restructure or remove itself from a 30 year old County Water Agreement that required the City to sell its water to the Harford County at a loss; (2) task the Department of Public Works to have an independent study completed of the entire Water and Sewer system and determine and develop a plan to make the Water and Sewer Fund solvent, and (3) task the Water and Sewer Commission to develop a plan, using the DPW Study, that provides the best results with the least amount of cost to the system users. We are now at a point in time, where we have the opportunity to address the current and long term improvements necessary to bring the Water and Sewer Fund infrastructure up to date.

    7) What are the Options for funding the Capital Improvements and associated costs, based on the DPW Capital Improvement Plan, which is about $24 million over the next 10 years?

    a. Bond Bill
    Requires a voter supported referendum. The cost to the average consumer is going to be the continued implementation of the Infrastructure Replacement Fee (IRF) that is currently on all water bills. For the average user that cost will continue to be $30.00 per quarter. For high volume commercial and industrial users the cost is more, but will not exceed the current amount. Currently, the IRF generates about $800,000 which will cover the projected bond payment. There is not any planned increase to the IRF. A bond is a fixed loan made by the investors to the borrower (City of Havre de Grace). The bond option could be thought of as a “home improvement loan” to fund needed repairs. The Water and Sewer Commission has projected that the City can repay the bond over 20 years without having to raise usage rates or add any additional fees and still perform ongoing maintenance to the system.
    b. Grants
    While the City will continue to submit for assistance through qualifying grant programs, the likelihood of receiving funding to support water and sewer capital projects is very low. The issue of aging water and sewer infrastructure is growing nation-wide but there is no indication that Federal or State officials intend to develop programs to deal with this. It is therefore up to local governments to deal with this issue.
    c. Special Assessment
    The City could assess property owners with a special assessment. This approach would likely require an average assessment of approximately $1,000 per property for the next 5 years. This approach has the advantage of being “interest free” but it is also a much greater financial burden to citizens while the special assessment is in effect. The assessment also carries the risk of deterring residential and commercial investment in the City.
    d. Pay as you go or PAYGO
    As noted previously, the City already spends about $1.2 million of its annual revenues on maintaining the current water and sewer system. In order to generate the additional funds for the needed capital projects would require metered water and sewer rates to increase by over 33%. As is the case with the Special Assessment option, the increased costs would be a significant financial burden on residents and potentially deter future development.

    8) What is the proposed increase of fees per quarter on the water bill?

    The Infrastructure Replacement Fee that is currently on the water bill will fund the revenue required to make the bond payments for the proposed Capital Infrastructure Replacement Plan. Should the bond referendum not be approved, the final impact on fees and rates is a matter for additional deliberation and debate by the City Council. A pay as you go program will require significant increases in rates or fees or a combination of both. Item #2 depicts the estimated impact on metered rates only.

    9) What is the proposed increase of fees and per gallon rates on the water bill?

    The estimated rate increases, provided the citizens do not approve the bond referendum, would be an increase from $6.20 per 1,000 gallons for water service to $8.15 per 1,000 gallons, and an increase from $9.30 per 1,000 gallons to $12.20 per 1,000 gallons. Based on the average for the last billing cycle, the average single family residential bill would increase an estimated $47.25 per quarter. Industrial, commercial and multi-family facility quarterly bills would increase more as a result of greater estimated usage.

    10) During the public input sessions, the city only discussed the $14 million going to the basic improvements and not the pipes; how is the city going to obtain the additional monies to fix the pipes?
    The planning sessions discussed the entire project would exceed $25 million.

    The public hearings included over $24 million in capital improvements over the next 5 years, including facilities, pumping stations, water tanks, and pipe infrastructure. It was determined that, at current rates and current usage patterns, the City could generate adequate revenues to cover operations and an estimated $14 million over the next 5 years. The $10 million shortfall would require a $14 million bond to cover the additional $10 million in capital projects and the additional debt service to repay the debt under current municipal bond market conditions.

    11) Is the bond a flat interest rate or variable interest rate?

    The planned bond is subject to the municipal market based on conversations with State Agencies active in the bond market on a regular basis. These agencies are using a 1.7% interest rate and 20 year life with semi-annual debt service. Administrative fees are included bringing the effective interest rate to $2.04% fixed over the term of the bond. These same factors were used to estimate the anticipated bond for the City.

    12) Isn’t there additional hidden fees and interest rate each time money is drawn from the $14 million bond?

    There is not any withdrawal fee or penalty imposed in the current State and Municipal Bond Market and none are included in the cost estimate. The bond issue would be put to public bid and all fees and costs would be disclosed and evaluated as part of the process.

    13) $14 million is for pump house, waste, water tower, intake, etc. How does the city plan to fund the other infrastructure?

    The bond issue is one component of the overall funding plan. The remainder is based on current revenue streams. The capital program being addressed by the program is all known infrastructure needs, including current levels of repair, maintenance and replacement for water main breaks.

    14) Provide the basic calculations using current federal interest rate over 10 years on a $14 million bond – vs – Special Assessment on average property value over 10 years

    Using the current bond market conditions noted previously, the estimated annual debt service is approximately $875,000 per year for 20 years. If the City would raise the funds through a special assessment, the additional capital requirements would need to be raised on approximately 5,600 tax bills a year for 5 years. The $1,000 per property is an estimate that includes consideration of the costs for issuing the assessment, ensuring its legal compliance with Maryland law, the deferral of available funds, and the potential for the negative potential impact on future development as a result.

    15) Why can’t the City put 2 questions on the ballot for the citizens to decide? Bond -vs- Assessment

    The City charter only requires that any debt issuance be voted on by the electorate, hence a requirement for a referendum. The Council is considering the assessment issue and invites comments from citizens on that option. The referendum is not considered the most appropriate vehicle for public debate on the course of one action versus another. Public work sessions and Public Hearings are considered the most appropriate venues for such discourse.

    16) Please discuss your calculation of an annual amount for the $1,000 a year Special Assessment amount. I calculated an amount that was considerably lower which covered only the residential property in the city and was for the entire $26 million required to fix the system and the pipe replacement to the property line not just the facility infrastructure.

    Please see item #7. Please also note the 5 year assessment period, which coincides with the anticipated capital improvement plan planning time frame.

    17) My research indicates that fully reliable water and sewer services will enhance businesses looking to locate in Havre de Grace. Isn’t the problem with the reliability of current infrastructure one of the reasons that a major employer did not expand here?

    The City has not experienced any issues with unreliable supply of water, nor has any question of reliable water supply or waste water treatment and removal been discussed with City officials. The City is reacting to a noted increase in water line breaks over the past few years and known areas of infrastructure that is past its estimated life. The effort is proactive in nature, part of a responsible facilities management program, and is made to ensure the continued reliable supply of water and waste water treatment in the long term future.

    18) In your Q&A you have two amounts over different repayment periods: $26 million over 10 years and $14 million over 5 years. You state that the bond is over 20 years, but a special assessment can be paid over 30 years. Please explain the discrepancies.

    The City’s Q&A provides a summary level answer to anticipated questions from citizens on the issue. I do not see the $26 million over 10 years. The proposed bond is $14 million which will cover the shortfall created by the current income over the next 5 years. The usage of a 30 year assessment is not being considered because the funding needs do not allow for such an extended plan. The City would not have the resources to accomplish the Capital Improvement Plan under a 30 year assessment option.

    19) There was a written statement delivered to Council at the October 7, 2019 Meeting, but not included in the minutes as requested by the citizen, a Special Assessment is the usual way cities improve their infrastructure. Also City-wide improvements projects allow the amount of the Special Assessment to be tax deductible to businesses and to individuals who itemize their tax deductions. Any amount added as a line item to the water/sewer bill is not tax deductible, except to businesses who can write it off as a business expense. In addition, a Special Assessment can be sought on any reasonable basis and not just on a foot per right- of- way basis. Why are the facts not included in your section regarding Special Assessment?

    The Special Assessment is an option being considered. It is important to point out that there are serious issues that must be addressed in order for the Special Assessment to be allowed under Maryland law including (1) the development of an equitable assessment allocation basis, (2) Federal and State tax treatment of the assessment, (3) ensuring the assessment plan provides adequate funds in a proper timeframe as required by the Capital Improvement Plan, (4) the administrative costs associated with implementation, and (5) the risks of citizen challenge to the assessment plan. A Citizen’s written statement is not normally included nor required to be included as part of the Council’s official minutes of the meeting. Written communications and/or quoted statements may be included should the Council move to specifically include such communications.

    20) The existing IRF which for most customers is $30.00 per quarter. The question states that the City can repay the bond over 20 years without raising rates or any additional fees. Does that imply that the IRF of $30 will be on everyone’s quarterly water bill for the next 20 years? Or will it be longer than 20 years?

    The Ballot question requests a pay back of up to 25 years, not 20 years, but that is not to say that the City could not repay the debt earlier. Currently the IRF raises about $900,000 in revenue annually. The intent of the borrowing request is to address the infrastructure concerns using the IRF. Irrespective of the result of the bond referendum, it is safe to say the IRF will be here to stay indefinitely. The referendum vote will not impact the amount or duration of the fee, except to reduce the likelihood of it increasing dramatically to cover capital infrastructure purchase on a pay as you go basis

    Water main breaks throughout the City since 2016
    Map Updated 11.1.19

    Click image to view

    Important Links
    Important Dates

    Tuesday, February 4, 2020:

    A Special Election will be held on Tuesday, February 4, 2020, from 7 am to 8 pm at 711 Pennington Avenue, Havre de Grace, Maryland 21078, for the purpose of a Special Referendum Ballot asking the registered voters of the City of Havre de Grace permission to solicit proposals and ascertain options to issue bonds, whether by public or private sale, and to issue such bonds (and obtain any necessary interim financing) on the full faith and credit and unlimited taxing power of the City, in order to obtain funding to address water distribution and wastewater collection systems capital infrastructure projects.

    View Ballot Questions 

    Saturday, December 14, 2019 – 10:00 A.M. – 4:00 P.M.

    The City of Havre de Grace will be hosting an open house and tours of its Water Treatment Plant located at 415 Saint John Street and the Wastewater Treatment Plant located at 1 Jerry Foster Way.

    -The Havre de Grace Water Treatment Plant is responsible for providing citizens with safe and reliable drinking water.

    -The Wastewater Treatment Plant is responsible for treating wastewater before it’s returned to the waterway.

    Notice of Public Input Session – Thursday, November 14, 2019

    The Mayor and City Council of Havre de Grace will hold a public input session on Thursday, November 14, 2019 at 6pm in the City Council Chambers, 711 Pennington Avenue, Havre de Grace, Md. to receive input from the public concerning the Water and Sewer Capital Improvement Plan and the cost of implementation.