Grant may fund water service expansion

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County will move forward with application for a grant to help offset the cost of extending OUA water lines to Whispering Pines.

For income eligible residents, the grant would help with the cost of connecting the water lines to the homes.

The grant option was discussed at the Dec. 17 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commissioners.

Under the proposal, water lines would be extended to serve approximately 230 lots in Whispering Pines (also called the Basswood East), explained OUA director John Hayford.

“We would be putting in piping throughout the entire area,” Mr. Hayford said.

“There is an existing water main that serves on portions of the road, but everywhere else we would put in water mains to serve the domestic needs and fire hydrant to provide service through the entire area,” he explained.

If somebody came in today and wanted to hook up for service, the capital connection charge to help pay off existing debt and to pay the cost of making the new connection is roughly $2,200 per residential lot, he explained.

Estimated construction cost is $850,000. The county will apply for a CDBG grant of $600,000.

“I know there will be some pushback from folks who don’t want to hook up,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. He said these homeowners currently have their own wells and septic tanks.

Okeechobee County Commissioner Bryant H. Culpepper.

Okeechobee County Commissioner Bryant H. Culpepper.

Mr. Culpepper said he has advised those who have contacted him that they should consider the lifespan of their wells. In some cases, the wells are already showing signs that they will need to be replaced soon.

Because that is a low-lying area to start with, cross contamination between septic drain fields and wells is also a concern, he added.

The water lines will also make is possible to install fire hydrants, which will increase public safety and decrease the homeowner’s insurance costs, he said.

“Plus in the event of a hurricane, when the power goes out, the one thing you will have is potable water,” he added.

“I think there are a lot of reasons for the board to consider mandatory hookups to the system,” Commissioner Culpepper added.

He said some affected homeowners have asked if they can keep using their existing wells to water their lawns.

If someone has an existing well, they would have to physically disconnect the well from the house, but could continue to use well water for things such as lawn irrigation, washing vehicles or providing water for animals, Mr. Hayford explained.

A critical aspect to the proposal is for the county to adopt a policy that requires homeowners to hook up to OUA lines if they are available.

Commission Chairman Frank Irby said there is no point in running water lines if the homeowners do not hook up to them. He asked if the county is ready to make the connections mandatory.

County Attorney John Cassels Jr. said such a policy would have to apply to the entire county, not just Basswood.

Okeechobee County is eligible to apply for a grant under the Florida Small Cities Community Development Block Grant Program. This is a federal program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is allocated to the State of Florida for award to eligible cities and counties. The state program is administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and is highly competitive.

The Florida CDBG program has four funding categories. The county may apply for either a Housing, Neighborhood Revitalization, or Commercial Revitalization grant of up to $750,000. The county may also apply for an Economic Development category grant of up to $1,500,000, but not more than $34,999 per job created or retained.

The Housing category funds housing rehabilitation and replacement, homeowner buyouts from 100 year floodplains and associated relocation, and similar housing activities. All beneficiaries must be within the moderate income range, which is 80% of the area median income adjusted for family size. For a competitive $750,000 application, there would have to be a minimum of 11 households assisted. Of the 11, five would need to be in the low-income category and another twp would have to be in the very-low income category. There would also need to be a $50,000 local match.

The Neighborhood Revitalization category funds water and wastewater (sewer) line extensions and household service connections, road paving and stormwater drainage. Other projects, such as water/sewer replacement, sidewalks, neighborhood parks or community centers for lower income areas, are also eligible. The activities must serve moderate-income neighborhoods.

For a competitive $750,000 application, there would have to be a minimum of 84 moderate (or lower) income households assisted in a defined service area(s) where the total population is 70% or more in the moderate income category, including 30% or more in the very-low income category. There would also need to be a $50,000 local match.

The Commercial Revitalization category is designed for public improvements and certain improvements to commercial buildings within commercial areas.

The entire service area population must be at least 51 percent moderate income or below. Only 1-2 grants will be funded in this category for the entire state. While in theory Okeechobee County is eligible, in reality it is not likely such a grant would be approved for the rural county.

The Economic Development (ED) category provides funds to assist with business development or retention. The grant requires an up-front commitment by a new or expanding business to produce new jobs, or to stay in business in the community if the grant is used to eliminate a problem that would force the business to close or relocate. The business must invest its own funds, and at least 51 percent of the new or retained jobs must be for persons whose incomes are not more than the moderate income limits at the time of hiring or retention. CDBG funds may be used to provide infrastructure improvements that are required in order for the business to locate or expand (such as water or wastewater line extensions or road widening), or to acquire and/or construct facilities which will be sold or leased to the business at fair market value.

No members of the public commented on the grant options.

Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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