By BEN MITCHELL
After years of dealing with crumbling water pipes that have leaked millions of gallons of water and caused a sinkhole to form on Steuben Street, the city of Bingen applied for a state loan last month to fund an extensive and much-needed water line repair.
Unfortunately, Bingen was informed by the state Department of Health last week that it would likely not be getting any of the requested $559,944 needed for the project. This was because Bingen's was not one of the 54 applications to make the Draft Intended Use Plan for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Loan, which is the name of the DOH loan.
However, the two other cities in Klickitat County made it through the first round of cuts. Both Goldendale and White Salmon's applications received preliminary approval. Goldendale is seeking $1,336,300 for its "Lower Reservoir Replacement" and White Salmon wants $556,727 for its "2013 Snowden Road/Simmons Road Water Line Project."
Bingen City Administrator Jan Brending was not pleased and wanted to know the reason the city was denied the loan. Gray & Osborne, the engineering firm that prepared the application, also wanted more information.
"I asked why, as did Gray & Osborne and you saw what I think is a ridiculous answer, but it is what it is," said Brending to the Bingen City Council during last week's meeting.
Ken Alexander, project manager at Gray & Osborne, emailed Karen Klocke, infrastructure finance lead at the Department of Health in Olympia, to discover why Bingen did not get the loan.
"What it came down to was population," Klocke responded in an April 16 email. "We had many application that scored 30 points. We then ranked them from the largest population down to the smallest in each point group. White Salmon has a population of 3,930, while Bingen has a population of 1,558. So White Salmon came in ahead of Bingen."
The DOHs draft list shows that each application was assessed a point value, with the lowest ranked application on the list receiving 31 points. Both White Salmon and Goldendale squeaked by with 32 and 35 points, respectively. For some perspective, the highest ranked application had a value of 129 points. Yet, that project, described as "Kala Point Acquisition, upgrade, consolidation" sought $1,089,000 from the DOH fund and was located in an area with a population of 1,287. This is almost 300 less than Bingen's population, yet the applicant, listed as "PUD#1 of Jefferson County," wanted almost twice as much money.
Klocke stated in her email that there were "so many deserving systems and we just don't have enough money to fund them all."
However, five applications on the list asked for more money than Bingen and had smaller populations. No other factors were listed in Klocke's email about why Bingen was not awarded the funds. Most applications listed areas with populations over 2,000 people.
Brending viewed the loan denial as a microcosm of a systemic issue plaguing the state, where small towns receive a disparate amount of funding compared to larger municipalities.
"It came down to population; we're a little, tiny town and obviously they think big towns with larger populations are worth more, I guess, in points," Brending said bitterly. "I don't know, it was very disappointing that that's what it came down to was a population issue."
Members of the city council agreed with Brending.
"I think you should send, Betty, an email to Karen [Klocke]," said Council Member Catherine Kiewit to Mayor Betty Barnes, "and let her know that smaller cities need funding more than bigger cities."
"Smaller cities have as big of emergencies as bigger cities," chimed in Council Member Clinton Bryan. "Those water lines are corroded, no matter what the population is."
Brending explained that Bingen wasn't the only city in Washington annoyed by the perceived trend. She mentioned that other cities had voiced their concerns at conferences about the unequal distribution of federal stimulus money.
"The money, the transportation money, all these monies go to the I-5 Corridor and to Spokane and it's very frustrating," Brending said. "The rest of us are just hanging in the dust."
While Bingen did not make the draft list for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, Brending announced that the city could still apply for a loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Fund, but that interest rates may be slightly higher than what the DOH would have offered. This loan has an open application process.
Brending also offered the option of applying for the state's Public Works Trust Fund loan (which has a deadline of May 11), but cautioned that funding may be more limited than was initially expected.
"The state is dipping into the Public Works Trust Fund loan money," warned Brending, "so I'm not for sure actually how much money is going to be available."
Brending recommended the city apply for both loans. A motion was made by Council Member Laura Mann to do so. Bryan seconded it and the motion passed.
While it is likely the city will not get the loan, the draft list must be formally approved by the state's Public Works Board. Comments on the Draft IUP list will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11 and can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. A public hearing is scheduled for May 14.