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Bang for our stormwater bucks

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Poll: Should stormwater improvements be a higher priority in Waynesboro?

Waynesboro was looking at spending $1.2 million this year to get its long-awaited and long-debated stormwater-improvement project up and running, but that was before the new vice mayor, Frank Lucente, switched positions on the source of funding for the improvements late last year, from a utility-fee-based system to one where monies for the improvements were to be drawn from the general fund.

The city is now budgeting $486,000 for its stormwater program in fiscal-year 2008-2009, or right at 40 percent of what had been budgeted under the previous plan.

I’m assuming that the debate over how we’re going to fund the stormwater program is over and done with for now, at the least, with a new council majority headed by Lucente and Mayor Tim Williams strongly in favor of the general-fund-based system – and with that majority in place for the next four years, the debate could be over and done with completely and wholly.

The question that I want answered is not how we’re going to pay for it, but what bang we’re going to get for our reduced bucks. To that end, I talked with several people in City Hall to try to get a sense of how the cut in the stormwater budget is going to impact the effectiveness of the program, if at all. What I heard initially surprised me. The director of the city public-works department, Brian McReynolds, gave me the sense that he feels that the impact of the reduction in funding will be minimal this year and perhaps into the future as well.

“I don’t think it will be an issue for us. We’re moving forward,” McReynolds said.

City budget director Pat Nicosia offered a countering view. The $1.2 million budget figure for ’08-’09 that had been worked out when it had appeared that the city was going to move forward with a fee-based funding system was based on the assumption that there would be a work crew dedicated to working on projects in the stormwater-improvements area 12 months out of the year. The cut in the budget reduced the work time of that crew from 12 months to five months in ’08-’09.

“Is there an impact on service? Yes. We can’t finish the projects as fast as we would working 12 months out of the year. And we can’t do as much as we would working 12 months out of the year,” Nicosia told me.

“It might not be seen, because we’re just getting started with this program. If we’d done 12 months of work last year, and cut back to five this year, that would be something that people would notice. But we’re starting from scratch, so five months doesn’t seem like a cut,” Nicosia said.

What impact there will be will come on the maintenance side of the project, and specifically in the area of corrective-maintenance measures. The city is utilizing inmate work crews from the Middle River Regional Jail to handle preventative-maintenance work, “and that should not be affected by the budget situation,” McReynolds said. Crews from the public-works department are needed to handle the more sensitive corrective-maintenance work, and there shouldn’t be any significant impact from the budget cut on the schedule for corrective maintenance this year, McReynolds said, though there could be issues down the road depending on the climate during future budget years.

“The issue of funding is really a choice. It’s an annual choice, How are we going to allocate costs relative to the program. As far as we’re concerned on our end, though, the decisions as to what we need to do have already been made,” McReynolds said.

A related question then comes to mind for me – namely, are we getting the most for our dollars on a project-by-project basis? An engineering consultant based in Waynesboro, Dave Segars, has looked over the list of individual stormwater-improvement projects devised by the public-works department, and he raised a couple of potentially serious red flags based on what he has seen.

“The cost estimate for that project right there in front of the public-works building is something that I would question. It’s a few hundred feet of pipe and a detention pond, and it’s going to cost a million dollars? And $250,000 for engineering costs? That’s a lot of money for what they’re doing,” Segars said, pointing to a project in Wayne Hills near the public-works office that would build a detention pond and update other infrastructure in the area at an estimated cost of $918,000, with an estimated $166,000 in in-house engineering costs and another $106,000 in a line item marked contractor markup.

Other high-dollar projects on the list have Segars questioning the relevance of the stormwater project list developed by the Roanoke-based Hayes, Seay, Mattern and Mattern consulting firm and updated in 2006. “To me, rushing water should be more of a priority than standing water. Rushing water that can carry a kid away is a lot bigger problem. That’s why Chatham and Tiffany should be higher priorities. They have situations there that are dangerous. But if they’ve had rushing water in Wayne Hills, I haven’t seen it yet,” Segars said.

I asked McReynolds about both of these issues – the cost and the rankings on the project list. As to the issue of weighting projects in Wayne Hills to those in the Chatham-Tiffany areas in the West End, McReynolds said, “All of the projects are ranked. The Wayne Hills project were ranked like all the other ones were. They were pretty high on the list basically because basically what you have in Wayne Hills is it was built in a bowl, and when it rains, there’s nowhere for water to go. And because of when it was built, it’s hard to do anything with the existing infrastructure to get water out.”

The issue of the cost figures from the 2006 update by Hayes, Seay, Mattern and Mattern would seem to be the bigger of the two issues cited by Segars to me. “We’ve looked at (the cost estimates), obviously, to see how they stack up relative to what we’d expect to see. We’ve got a lot riding on this, so we looked at it pretty closely,” McReynolds said. But the issue of how the cost estimates will look once the city does more hands-on design work is another story.

I expressed to McReynolds a concern on that issue. Cost estimates, particularly those that are a couple of years old, tend to come out on the low side of what a particular construction project will end up costing. Couldn’t this be an issue for the city down the road, given the tight budget situation that the city can expect to face for the next few years, at least?

“My experience is that these things tend to even themselves out,” McReynolds said.

Given the funding climate, it would seem to be better for us in the long run if they evened themselves out more on our side, which is to say, seeing the costs of those projects move seriously downward. That could then free up monies that are going to be missing this year and maybe into the future for corrective-maintenance measures that we all agree are just as important as the infrastructure work, if not more so.

The conclusion that I’ve reached at this point into my research into our stormwater dilemma is not one that has me feeling all that positive about where we stand right now with regard to the long-term efficacy of this project. The feeling that I get right now is that we’re going to end up shortchanging what we need to do in terms of maintenance while at the same time pushing ourselves to the brink of running out of money on the capital-intensive infrastructure end of the equation.

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