City can't keep up with repairs
A pipe that Lenoir officials didn’t even know existed caused a sinkhole and related problems that could cost $1 million to fix, an expense no one anticipated.
And that essentially sums up a major issue confronting the city.
Whether it’s streets, water sewer or stormwater, the amount of work needed to repair Lenoir’s aging infrastructure is far outstripping the money the city has available even without unexpected problems such as the sinkhole, which formed a few months ago on West Avenue near its intersection with Harper Avenue, a spot that started giving the city problems in 2011.
The cause of the sinkhole was an old storm water pipe crossing West Avenue that had collapsed, allowing water to erode the earth around it. The pipe wasn’t on any of the city’s maps, said Charles Beck, Lenoir’s director of public works, meaning the pipe is at least 25 years old.
But the pipe is likely much older, at least as old as the building it runs under, the former Carolina Custom Cabinets building, said Radford Thomas, director of public utilities. The building was constructed in 1947, 66 years ago, according to county property records.
The city doesn't come across unexpected pipes often, Thomas said. Even when pipes aren't on maps, a city worker may have come across them before and remembered them, with that information handed down from experienced to newer staff members.
Lenoir is not unique in this problem, Beck said.
“Mapping wasn’t a high priority then like it is now,” he said. “Most of the time, we find these situations when they manifest themselves through a sinkhole, and until we do, we really don’t know we have a problem.”
And that can divert money from other projects, such as roads.
The city is responsible for maintaining125 miles of streets. Ideally, each street should be repaved every 15-20 years, which would be about six miles a year, but in recent years the city has been paving only about one mile a year, Beck said.
“We’re not allocating enough money to be on an appropriate schedule for resurfacing,” said Beck. “We’ve gotten behind, and it’s very, very hard to catch up.”
Beck said Lenoir has approximately $7 million in street resurfacing needs. The city appropriated $170,000 for the current fiscal year, 2013-14.
Most problems facing the city’s water and sewer systems are related to the age of the pipes, which will eventually degrade to the point of leaking or failing. That can lead to a sinkholes if the water from the pipe erodes the earth around it, or if a portion of the pipe erodes or collapses and soil enters, it can block the pipe.
City officials don't know how old the oldest pipes in the city are, but near the Lenoir Greenway, along Powell Road, 60- to 65-year-old pipes are being replaced, and there could be pipes in the ground much older than that.
Thomas said the city has a plan in place to “identify major projects well in advance,” which is important when it comes to the engineering fieldwork and financing that needs to be done for big projects.
“With some of these things, I don’t think you can ever be satisfied with how quickly you can get to them,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of needs out there, and it comes down a lot to prioritizing.”
Many communities face greater needs for repairs to aging infrastructure, said Shadi Eskaf, a senior project director with the University of North Carolina’s School of Government. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the federal government provided a lot of construction grants for infrastructure projects, but in recent decades the grants have dried up, leaving more cities competing for a smaller pot of funding.
“We know that there’s money available,” Eskaf said. “But when you look at … studies that look at total capital needs versus how much is available through funds, there’s always a huge gap, and North Carolina is not an exception.”
Cities have few options, he said. They can either borrow money and pay interest on it for years, apply for the dwindling number of grants, or raise taxes, but all need to be coupled with planning and saving.
Lenoir last raised its property tax rate in 2011, the first raise in eight years, but the capital improvement plan that the city council approved last spring anticipates a 2-cent increase next year and more increases in subsequent years.
Water and sewer rates have increased the past two consecutive fiscal years. Rate increases aren't planned far in advance, Thomas said. Rates are determined on an as-needed basis.
City Manager Lane Bailey has been commended by council members for an emphasis on saving, which helps when dealing with unexpected expenses. The city’s fund balance – its unspent savings – is about equal to 20 percent of its annual budget. The state calls for local governments to keep a fund balance at 8 percent.
In general, road repairs are paid for with revenue from property taxes, and water and sewer projects are paid for with revenue from water and sewer rates. But surprises like sinkholes sometimes require the city to draw from the funds earmarked for street repair, Bailey said.
And city officials expressed exasperation during the summer at the cost of some work for a project local officials didn’t want and say isn’t needed. Because of the new interchange being built at the intersection of U.S. 321 and Hibriten Drive/Connelly Springs Road, the state required the city to pay for moving water and sewer lines in the area, which will cost Lenoir more than $1 million that officials hadn’t planned on spending.
“When we have these things come up, we re-prioritize the CIP (capital improvement plan) and address them as they come up,” Bailey said.