City officials searching for funding for highway project utility work

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Manila city officials are trying to find a way to come up with an estimated $600,000 to pay the city's portion of an Arkansas Highway Department project to widen and resurface Highway 18 from Blytheville to Jonesboro.

Walter McMillian with the highway department discusses plans for widening Highway 18 at the Manila Bypass. (Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

Mayor Wayne Wagner and members of the Manila city council spoke Monday, Jan. 27, with Highway Department representative Walter McMillan to get a full understanding of the city's responsibilities for the project, which will extend from Towell & Sons Auto Sales to Fred's Super Dollar Store on the city's bypass.

McMillan said the city of Manila is obligated to pay the cost of moving water and sewer utilities through that area, noting that in some cases cities qualify for reimbursement, depending on where the utilities are located.

"I understand the cost of the project will fall to Manila for 60 percent and the Highway Department for 40 percent," McMillan said. "Once the funding for the utilities is acquired, then a decision has to be made if city officials want the utilities placed on the highway's right of way or behind the right of way.

"Smaller utility companies usually stick to our right of way," he added. "That way they do not have to bear the cost again in the future if, for any reason, the utilities have to be moved again."

McMillan said the Highway 18 project, which began a few years ago, has been completed in phases. On hold for now, he said, is the phase which extends from the Manila bypass back to Highway 18 and on to the Big Lake bridge. The bridge project is separate, he noted.

"It is my understanding all of the plans are complete except for this strip going through Manila and the area going around Monette," Wagner said.

He noted the Highway Department determines if a city has utilities to be moved.

Wagner indicated the city understands the urgency of finding the needed funding, but added it takes time to find grants and that any possible funding available through the Arkansas Rural Water Association might cause the city to lose control of its utility rates.

McMillan noted a large portion of the project will be completed with federal funds.

"This project stands alone regardless if we ever build Big Lake bridge or not," he said. "Federal money has a time limit, just like a grant. It is obligated and has to be spent in a certain time frame. If a project gets delayed, the Department is not going to lose that money. They will take it and use it somewhere else and then you will fall back in line for the next round of funding."

Asked about the possibility of the city borrowing from the Highway Department and using turnback monies to repay the loan, McMillan responded, "At one time we could do that, but I've been told we no longer can. We don't have that option anymore."

McMillan estimated completion of the Manila project at two to two-and-a-half years.

"I need to sit down and find out exactly how much time we have," Wagner said. "I need to meet with our representatives and other regional and county officials. They are trying to help us. The timetable is getting close. I was there (in the state legislature) and helped when the highway project passed in 1993 and it is just now getting here. If we miss this cycle, it could be years before it comes back around."

"I feel like something has to be done," alderman Tony Hawkins said. "There has to be something they can do. They can't come in and break a city to get the work done."

Alderman Donnie Wagner suggested if the city had been informed of this expense in the beginning they could have requested an alternate route.

"When they had their hearings years ago, most wanted this route," Wagner said.

McMillian added several options were considered and this route selected.

In answer to questions from the council, McMillan said both sides of the highway will be widened and curbs and gutters installed through the bypass area.

In other business, the mayor, council members and the city treasurer discussed comparisons of the actual income and expenditures to the 2013 budget.

"The final income and expenses are very close to the 2013 budget," Wagner said. "Rebecca (city treasurer Rebecca Hartgraves) has done a good job. We will have another meeting next Monday, Feb. 3, to finalize the budget amendments.

"All said and done, we are in good shape," he added. "We will talk next week about our utility rates. We have to look at it. That is one area the city is not breaking even." He cited failed pumps and other repairs as a reason for that problem.

"And Manila is among the lowest in the state of Arkansas on water and sewer charges," he added.

Wagner said there should be enough in the street account to pave the street around the pool.

"I think everyone has done a good job," he said. "We will always have the unknown."

The council discussed, but took no action, on admission prices for the pool, rental prices and booking options for private parties at the pool; season ticket prices, and raising the rental fee at the community center. Some of the pool prices discussed included $5 admission for those 15 and over; $3 for those 14 and under, and no charge for those 62 and older.

Wagner told the council to think about it and be ready to make the decisions.

"It costs $100 an hour to keep the pool open," he noted.

The walking trail should go to bid in March, Wagner said. The grant, through the Highway Department, will pay 83 percent of the cost. Wagner said the administration building at the airport is coming along well and should be completed in March.

Hawkins asked about mosquito control, adding, "We need to be thinking about it and see what the public wants us to do. We had a bid of $50,000. We need the input from the people."

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