Editor’s note: After deadline last Tuesday, Ohio Department of Development spokesperson Todd Walker responded to inquiries about the recent rounds of funding for water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Because Walker’s comments would have dramatically altered the substance of the original article, this report is an addendum to part three of this series.
The Ohio Department of Development revealed last Tuesday night that it had begun awarding competitive grants for water and wastewater infrastructure before it had read all the applications.
“Development is still in the process of reviewing hundreds of applications received in the latter part of the application window,” ODEV spokesperson Todd Walker said in an email.
The state has already announced three rounds of grants for 190 projects in every county. Top-priority projects in at least two southeast Ohio counties were passed over in favor of work that officials said was not as high-priority.
Walker issued the statement more than a month after The Athens NEWS first asked for details about grants issued through Gov. Mike DeWine’s “Broadband, Utilities, and Infrastructure for Local Development Success,” or BUILDS, initiative. The statement also follows three news reports about the region’s poor infrastructure and unanswered questions about how BUILDS grants were awarded.
The program was created by Ohio House Bill 168, sponsored by Ohio Reps. Mark Fraizer, R-Newark, and Mike Loychik, R-Bazetta. The bill, which took effect June 29, allocated $250 million in Ohio’s ARPA funds to water and wastewater infrastructure improvements. It directed the Ohio Department of Development to “establish and administer the Water and Sewer Quality Program to provide grants to political subdivisions related to water and sewer quality projects.” The bill also required county engineers to submit priority lists of projects in their county by August 27.
The state received more than 1,200 applications seeking $1.4 billion in grants, said Dan Tierney, a spokesperson for DeWine.
State Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Asheville, was not concerned about ODEV not reviewing all applications, and said it was a testament to both the great need and the anticipated influx of funds coming into the state through federal programs.
“I think our thought is, you know, these programs and these applications that have not been funded this time we're gonna have several more bites at the apple,” Stewart said.
He said the next waves of funding will almost certainly fill the gaps made by the recent wave of BUILDS funding.
“Unless you could point to a project that you think is undeserving or shouldn't have been awarded,” Stewart said. “The simple fact that we got more applications than we can approve is not something to be terribly concerned about.”
The top-priority projects in Athens County (Chauncey and Nelsonville) and the top-priority project in Vinton County (Garrett Ridge) were not not selected. Athens County’s 20th and 23rd out of 23 projects were selected.
The 20th ranked project, at Tuppers Plains-Chester Water District, submitted their project materials very shortly after the application window began, Athens County Engineer Jeff Maiden said. Maiden said he submitted the county’s application package on the final day it was open, after spending the week compiling and scoring the 23 projects submitted for Athens County.
He added that he had even spoken to a business developer who said his process for scoring was the most analytical and robust scoring she had seen in the scoring process.
Although HB168 directed engineers to submit prioritized lists, Walker said the lists were only one of several factors considered.
“Although the engineering list was among the considered scoring factors, projects were also selected based on eligibility, order of application submission, community impact, and shovel readiness,” Walker said.
ODEV’s grant application application materials do not mention that order of submission was a factor. It does note that “applications will be reviewed and scored as they are received.”
Instead, the frequently asked questions state “the program will include a specific emphasis on addressing the needs of economically disadvantaged communities, including providing safe, reliable drinking water in areas that lack infrastructure, providing sewage treatment capacity in unsewered areas and promoting regional development of infrastructure to serve multiple communities.”
Nelsonville City Manager Scott Frank is suspicious of Walker’s assertion that additional criteria were used to award grants.
“None of that even makes sense,” Frank said.
Chauncey’s $5 million project to replace its failing sewer lines is ready to begin as soon as funding is secured, according to the Buckeye Hills Regional Council’s list of shovel-ready projects in an eight-county region. Frank said his second-ranked project — replacing a failed water line that is one of only two that feeds parts of the city — is shovel-ready and would have a significant community impact. A project in Trimble, ranked fourth in Athens County, was also shovel-ready.
An Athens County project selected for a $90,000 grant, the Tuppers Plains-Chester Water district was not shovel-ready — with the funding only covering planning and design. Funding was allocated to projects as either “design projects” or “construction projects,” according to the grant’s FAQ.
The Burr Oak Regional Water District received $4.9 million to add a new filtration system — a project that Maiden ranked last. Maiden has said in previous reports that all the projects included on the list were worthy of funding and that water access in the county was acute.
Chauncey Mayor Amy Renner wonders how the state defines “community impact.” If it’s a pure numbers game, she said, Chauncey is at a disadvantage because “(Chauncey only has) 450 customers which pales in comparison to Burr Oak’s 40,000.”
“A better measure of community impact in my opinion is the system's ability to fund the project through rate increases, because that will have a significant community impact,” Renner said. “A small system like Chauncey can’t fund the project through the customers without making astronomical rate increases.”
At $5 million, Chauncey’s project comes out to over $11,000 per customer.
Renner said it was unfortunate “you have to beg and plead” the General Assembly for attention for funding.
“Hard for me to find time to beg when I have a full-time day job,” Renner said.
Tierney said DeWine’s administration is looking forward “to additional conversations with the Ohio General Assembly about the potential of expanding this program with additional funds.”
Walker agreed, saying “the administration is working with the legislature in hopes of securing more money to award to other eligible projects.”
Walker did not respond to additional requests for comment.