The town of Trafalgar asked county officials to consider doling out federal funds to help offset the costs of the town’s $7 million wastewater project.
Jessica Jones, Trafalgar Town Council president, asked the Johnson County American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, committee on Friday if they would consider giving the town between $150,000 and $300,000 from the county’s $30 million pool of ARPA funds.
Jones proposed this as a way to help offset the costs the town and its residents have incurred to pay for the $7.2 million wastewater project that is now underway. In order to pay for the project, Trafalgar had to increase its sewer rates for residents by roughly 43% over two phases. The first increase started in October last year after the town council approved the new rates in August.
This proposal from Jones was met somewhat harshly with skepticism from the county commissioners and county council members who sit on the committee. Some members questioned the outdated numbers in the rate and project studies from 2020, and also asked Jones to consider other funding options before asking the county for help.
Jones explained that Trafalgar is hurting for money in many areas, from the wastewater project to various infrastructure problems. Trafalgar received its own ARPA allocation of roughly $304,000. That money is planned to go toward the wastewater project cost, and also to other drainage infrastructure projects around town, Jones said.
Trafalgar is currently in the midst of trying to find finances to pay up to $60,000 for two drainage infrastructure projects. Both projects are affecting residents’ homes and flooding yards. One project involves fixing drainage issues caused by the town park being built, and another would fix a drainage problem causing erosion to resident Pam Palmer’s yard.
Jones said she would like to use Trafalgar’s ARPA funds to help with those projects, but did not know if it was possible without the county’s help to alleviate the wastewater project cost burden.
“We are hemorrhaging everywhere across town,” Jones said. “So, really any amount of funds you guys can help us in this area could allow us to stop bandaging and hopefully really start to heal those other areas.”
Jones said allocating town and county ARPA money to the cost of the wastewater project could also stop the second rate increase, which will go into effect after the project is complete and continue until the bond is paid off in 2042. That would mean the rate increase would not end up being the whole 43%.
To pay for the project, Trafalgar received two state grants and had to raise sewer rates in August to cover the cost of a bond taken out to finance the rest. Trafalgar was awarded a $2.5 million grant from the State Water Infrastructure Fund, or SWIF, and a $700,000 grant from the Indiana Office of Community & Rural Affairs, or OCRA. That left about $4.2 million the council borrowed as a bond to pay off over the next 20 years, with interest.
The 43% rate increase was met with a lot of backlash from residents in August when it passed, and Jones said average families are struggling with the higher bills. The average sewer bill now for a family of four in Trafalgar is $110 a month, when the average income in the town is $50,000 a year, she said.
The entire reason for the project is to increase sewer capacity to handle Trafalgar’s current and projected growth, Jones said. The town has grown by roughly 67% in the last 20 years, and its population in the last decade grew by about 300 people, according to U.S. Census data.
With more subdivisons under construction now, Trafalgar is expected to add at least 411 more equivalent dwelling units, or EDUs, to its sewer capacity just with new developments currently in the works, according to a 2020 engineering report by Curry and Associates. That 411 would be added to the already roughly 570 or so EDUs already in town. The current wastewater plant only has capacity for a little over 600 EDUs at the plant’s current 200,000 gallons per day limit.
Commissioner Ron West, who is the committee president, said he was skeptical of Jones presenting three-year-old data from the rate study and engineering reports from 2020. He asked Jones if she knew the current EDU growth from 2020 to 2023, and she did not know.
“Working off three year old information is not fair to you or us in making a decision,” West said. “I can just say up front, based on what you presented through this 2020 preliminary engineering report, I wouldn’t approve the requests.”
He and other members requested Jones also find out how much cash on hand Trafalgar put toward the project, and also find out what other finances the town could possibly put toward it.
They did not give Jones a no on the funding request, but asked her to come back to them with more updated information.
“I am all ears for any commissioners that have any suggestions. I feel like a lone wolf here. I’m trying to do what I can,” Jones said.
Johnson County has already allocated a chunk of its ARPA money, and has roughly $18 million left, which the committee also discussed on Friday. At least $16 million of that is expected to be saved to pay for construction of the combined county health department and coroner’s office building at roughly $6.5 million, and the planned county mental health facility with an estimated cost of $10 million.
Some members of the committee suggested they be more frugal in what they send money to now, with only around $2.4 million in unallocated funding. The committee should start prioritizing its requests, council member Ron Deer suggested.
The ARPA committee on Friday also considered a request from the Johnson County Parks Department for $150,000 to pay for half of the cost to add eight pickleball courts to Independence Park in White River Township. This proposal was generally met with support from committee members, particularly West, who plays pickleball often and lives in White River Township.
“White River Township has a huge population and the county doesn’t have any provision up there for this activity. It’s the fastest-growing sport in the United States,” West said.
However, with the remainder of ARPA funds left, the committee held out on approval and asked the parks department to come back with other funding sources, such as sponsorships from private companies. Commissioner Brian Baird said he liked the idea, but he’d rather focus on getting a park in Nineveh, or other important needs for funding that may come up.