Lowville officials reflect on ever-changing infrastructure project plans

It started last summer as a $12 million project to upgrade five primary village streets and replace utility pipes.

However, with news last fall of a major expansion project at the Kraft Heinz cream cheese plant, village officials were soon planning a pair of mammoth upgrade projects, with the combined price tag reaching $55 million before being scaled back to a slightly-more-manageable $38 million.

“We were planning on having a baby,” Mayor Donna M. Smith said. “And then we went and had our ultrasound and found out we were having triplets.”

Five Streets

About a year ago, village officials began talking about repaving and replacing 1930s-era pipes along five streets: Water and Stowe streets and Park, Trinity and Shady avenues.

The idea was to shore up the village’s main utility corridors, then do smaller projects in subsequent years — possibly utilizing village public works crews — to upgrade the side streets, Deputy Mayor Joseph G. Beagle said.

Since officials at the Utica Boulevard cream cheese plant for the past couple of years have been requesting increases in allotment for water and sewer to potentially increase production, Mrs. Smith said, another motive was to improve stormwater drainage so less rainwater would seep into the sewage system, effectively increasing sewage capacity.

While the mayor and her family were on a nearly two-month road trip to Alaska last summer, village officials learned that funding may be available through the state Environmental Facilities Corp., but the application deadline was looming in less than one month, Mr. Beagle said.

So, after regular business hours on a Friday afternoon, the deputy mayor said he and Thomas S. Compo, the village’s superintendent of public works, made some calls to see if an engineering firm would be able to handle such an application, and they were able to reach a principal with GYMO Architecture, Engineering and Land Surveying, Watertown.

That is the firm where Mr. Compo was employed prior to being appointed to the village post in January 2014.

However, Mr. Beagle downplayed that connection, saying the firm’s ability to quickly pull together a funding application for the then-routine project was the primary factor in the village’s decision. He also noted that Bernier, Carr & Associates, Watertown, was handling other grant applications for the village at the time and that such services could be retained without going out to bid.

And GYMO did a good job, securing a 30-year, no-interest loan through the initial application despite the time crunch, Mr. Beagle said.

The village had also applied for state economic development funding for a $3.5 million project to add a pair of sewer pump stations, but that project did not get funded. That led village officials to lump it in with the $12.38 million five streets project, and subsequent bond resolutions were made for $15.54 million, then $16.2 million when a new water line and resolution of sewer pipe issues at the Cazenovia Equipment building were included in the project. The village is now seeking grant funding through two pots of money at the Environmental Facilities Corp., one for water upgrades and the other for sewer, with hopes of starting work next spring.

Sewer Plant Upgrades

The region in early November got great news on the economic front, as state officials reached an agreement with Kraft Heinz that would mean plant expansion, new product lines and more than 100 new jobs over the next five years.

However, with that came the realization that the village’s sewer system likely could not handle the extra load.

So, village and GYMO officials sought a solution, culminating in a $37 million project including a digester to handle the highest-strength dairy waste. The mayor said GYMO brought in “a whole team of experts” to help design the project.

With such a massive price tag, village leaders also sought out creative financing options, eventually expressing their preference for a deal with private equity firm McDonald Financial Corp., pending state comptroller approval of the controversial arrangement, in which Kraft Heinz rather than the village would carry the debt load.

A few weeks later, the village did an about-face as Kraft Heinz officials indicated they would prefer to keep doing wastewater pre-treating rather than sign off on the expensive plan.

With the plant expected to ramp up production Dec. 15, the focus has now shifted to a $3.88 million, short-term solution that would increase capacity by adding high-efficiency turbo blowers and other aeration equipment at the existing lagoons. That amount includes $1.4 million for de­sludging, which the village must do every 18 to 20 years and has saved up for, Mrs. Smith said.

Since that project would likely leave the village with little to no room for extra sewage treatment, GYMO has also floated a couple of options for a second phase in subsequent years, with an overall, two-phase price tag of up to $21.5 million.

Mrs. Smith said the proposed second phase “still kind of scares me,” not only for the upfront cost but also expected annual maintenance expenses.

Village officials are also continuing discussions with Kraft Heinz to pin down what costs should be covered by the company, easily the village’s largest water and sewer customer. “We’re trying really hard to keep the lines of communication open,” she said.

Mrs. Smith, a physical therapist by profession, said she has no idea how many meetings she has attended on the two infrastructure projects. “I really don’t even want to know,” she said. “I don’t want to know how many hours I’ve spent on this project. It might make me sick.”

While most of the money spent thus far should be able to be partly reimbursed through any grant funding awarded, $150,000 spent for consultant Patrick H. Brennan to work on the private equity option likely will not, Mrs. Smith said.

However, village officials still learned some things through that effort and felt they needed to pursue that avenue to finance such a large project at the time, she said, adding that she’s had little time for reflection during the process.

“Do I wish we hadn’t spent that money? Yes,” Mrs. Smith said. “Do I regret spending that money? No. That was our safety net.”

The mayor said being unable to give concrete, definitive answers to people about the “moving target” projects has been difficult, but she credited support from her family, church and community for keeping her on task.

“I have great support systems that keep me moving forward knowing that there will eventually be a light at the end of this tunnel,” Mrs. Smith said. “That will probably be the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen.”


Ever-Evolving Projects

A timeline of key events surrounding the village of Lowville’s planned infrastructure upgrades.

June 2015 — Discussions begin on proposed repaving of five main village streets and replacing aging water and sewer lines.

Nov. 4 — State officials announce deal with Kraft Heinz expected to mean a major expansion at the Lowville plant and more than 100 new jobs over five years.

Nov. 18 — Trustees pass bond resolution for $12.38 million five streets project.

Feb. 9 — Trustees and county legislators discuss $55 million in infrastructure upgrades, including a $37 million project for a new sewage treatment system featuring four anaerobic digesters to accommodate additional high-strength output from Kraft Heinz.

Feb. 8 — Village sends letter to Kraft Heinz seeking $1.5 million commitment for new direct sewer lines from the plant to the sewage treatment plant.

Feb. 17 — Trustees approve agreement with McDonald Financial Corp. for possible private financing option, with $150,000 for consultant Patrick H. Brennan to assist with the project.

March — Several informational sessions held on the projects.

March 31 — Development Authority of the North Country offers short-term, $10 million loan.

April 6 — Trustees express preference for private equity funding solution, pending state comptroller approval.

April 13 — Trustees pass second five streets bond resolution for $15.54 million, including sewer pumps that weren’t funded through economic development grant and a breakdown of water and sewer expenses to apply for two types of funding.

May 4 — Village moves to scaled-back project as Kraft Heinz in late April express plans to continue on-site pre-treatment and trucking some waste off-site.

May 18 — Plans commence for $3.88 million in sewer system upgrades by the end of the year to accommodate for extra wastewater from Kraft Heinz, with second phase possible in subsequent years to expand capacity.

June 1 — Trustees approve a bond resolution of $21.5 million for possible sewer upgrades and a third five streets one for $16.2 million for an additional water line and resolution of sewer pipe issues at the Cazenovia Equipment building.

By Steve Virkler, Watertown Daily Times