Funding fix for frozen pipes

Jeff Dora, superintendent of the Saranac Lake Village Department of Public Works, smiles in May 2017 as DPW workers dig up Elm Street to replace underground pipes. Jon Keith is in the hole, Nick Pelletieri is beside it and Jason Rupp is operating the excavator. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — Throughout the state, villages and towns are struggling to replace water pipes and infrastructure installed, in many cases, around the beginning of the 20th century. Pipes burst every winter, and many municipal public works departments run from one leak to another when temperatures plummet.

In Saranac Lake, some of the village’s water mains are 100 years old.

Village workers in Tupper Lake repaired an 8-inch water main on Stetson Road that burst in the first days of 2018.

Lake Placid is planning to spend $1,555,200 this year for a total update of the 110-year-old sewer lines beneath Main Street.

Meanwhile, dwindling population reduces the tax base that once supported water pipes and sewage treatment, and costs for construction materials, labor and time have gone up.

In St. Armand, town Councilperson Don Amell expressed his frustration with additional state Department of Conservation requirements for the town’s new wastewater treatment plant. The plant cost $4.5 million, of which the state contributed $600,000. St. Armand has a population of about 1,500 people.

“We’ve spent millions,” said Amell at a January town council meeting. “And then they keep coming back and telling us to spend more. It’s never-ending.”

However, a new program could change the way infrastructure repairs are funded — if it gets through the state budget process.

On Monday night, Saranac Lake village trustees voted to support the Safe Water Infrastructure Action Program (SWAP), which would shift the burden of capital funding from municipalities like Saranac Lake and St. Armand onto the big shoulders of New York state.

“All the projects we’re looking at, this could be a funding source,” said Saranac Lake village Manager John Sweeney. “I hope this makes it through.”

According to a letter to state representatives that the village approved Monday, “Insufficient operation and maintenance (O & M) funding is a major contributor to our infrastructure issues. Years of unavoidable deferring maintenance of critical infrastructure due to insufficient savings and inability to apply for government funding are just some of the reasons that have led to insufficient O & M funding.”

The SWAP program would function in similar fashion to CHIPS, the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program. CHIPS, which began in 1981, which allocates money to local highway departments according to a formula that looks at the number of vehicles registered and the number of centerline highway miles are in the town.

“CHIPS is not controversial,” said state Assemblyman Dan Stec (R- Queensbury), a co-sponsor of SWAP. “The nice thing about SWAP would be the predictable level of funding.”

“It’s not that there’s no funding available [from the state] but it isn’t stable like CHIPS,” Stec said. “It would be nice to remove the possibility or perception of political favoritism.”

Many local infrastructure projects are funded, or receive state assistance, through a grant application process. Stec said the competition for this type of funding is inefficient and encourages controversy, but “there’s no fighting among highway departments for CHIPS money.”

The predictability of the money would allow public works departments to budget for repairs and maintenance in the long term. According to the letter endorsed by the village, “These would be smaller projects such as equipment replacement, manhole rehabilitation or water line replacement. The long-term sustainability of the systems would improve through the increased operation and maintenance funding and rates could stabilize and remain affordable.”

The SWAP program is in committee in both houses of the state legislature. Stec said it’s more likely to happen if it’s included in the budget process, which has become one of the major venues for implementing policy, even though there’s no funding attached to the program at this point.