Little Tobacco Drain Board approves FEMA agreement

June 27, 2019

At the table for the Little Tobacco intercounty Drain Drainage Board meeting Friday were: (from left) Dan Metiva and Scott Stockert both Hazard Mitigation analysts with the Michigan State Police; Board Chair Brady Harrington of the MDA-RD; Matt Schnepp, State Hazard Mitigation Officer for the Michigan State Police; Clare County Drain Commissioner and ILTD board member Carl Parks; Charles Smith of Spicer Group; Colleen Ritchie of the CCDC; Tim Warner of Isabella County Drain Office; and Bob Willoughby, ILTD board member and Isabella County Drain Commissioner.

By Pat Maurer

The estimated $7.5 multi-million dollar construction cost of the Little Tobacco Drain renovation project, slowed due to the earlier rejection of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to purchase properties along the drain, is now back on track.

After a lengthy presentation and explanation about the terms of the $2,200,593.32 Hazard Mitigation Grant last Friday, the Intercounty Little Tobacco Drain (ILTD) Board approved a motion authorizing Clare County Drain Commissioner and (ILTD) Board member Carl Parks to sign an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Association for the grant to purchase and demolish buildings on 22 properties (plus four alternates) along the Little Tobacco Drain. The three-member ILTD board consists of Harrington, Clare County Drain Commissioner Parks and Isabella County Drain Commissioner Robert Willoughby.

Chair Brady Harrington explains the requirements of the FEMA grant. He is seated beside Matt Schnepp of the Michigan State Police.

The PDM (Pre-Disaster Mitigation) grant will pay for $1,650,445 of the cost. The federal local match is 25 percent or $550,148.33.

Committee Chair Brady Harrington, Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the local match “would be paid through the municipal bonds that will be sold for the project, which will then be repaid through special assessments to the drainage district.”

In April, 2018, the Drainage Board voted to have Spicer Group, the engineering firm for the project to clean the drain, do the design work and develop a cost estimate before determining the scope of the Little Tobacco Drain project.

Last August, Spicer Group gave an outline of the scope of the project to widen, deepen and replace bridges along the approximate two-mile course from the Duncan Drain through Isabella County and the Little Tobacco Drain through the City of Clare and into Grant Township where it meets the South Branch of the Tobacco River near Clare’s Wastewater Treatment Plant.

At the April meeting, the Board learned that the costs to clean and renovate the drain were now roughly estimated from a low-end estimate of $4.7 million for a lesser project (smaller bridges, less dredging) to $7.5 million for a high-end estimate. The high estimate was for the full cost although two of the bridges that need to be replaced are the responsibility of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Improvements to the drain would alleviate major flooding, which has plagued the City for many years. It would also reduce the size of the flood plain area although three properties in the upstream area would still be subject to flooding in a 100-year flood occurrence.

Isabella County, Clare County, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the City of Clare, Grant Township and individual property owners along the course of the drain would share the costs of the improvements.

Clare City Manager Steven Kingsbury gave an update on the Little Tobacco Intercounty Drain Improvement Project at the June 17 City meeting. He said, “This week we learned that the $2.2 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant applied for by the Little Tobacco Intercounty Drain Board has been approved. The grant is for the purchase and demolition of 22 structures encroaching upon and restricting the flow of the Little Tobacco Drain.”

The buildings encroaching on the right-of-way for the drain are on properties in Isabella County and Clare County including the City of Clare and a portion of Grant Township. The drainage district (flood plain), which is now revised, is approximately 300 acres. Charles Smith of Spicer Group Inc. said the original drainage district had 213 properties removed and 269 added.

FEMA uses the Michigan State Police to administer the funds. They are the state administrators of FEMA funds and liaison with local municipalities for distribution of those funds.

Representing the MSP, State Hazard Mitigation Officer Matt Schnepp will work on the grant administration. He said, because of the limited local personnel for the administration, the board should hire a company to handle the enormous amount of reports and other paperwork required by the FEMA grant.

Harrington gave the presentation on the terms and fund reimbursement requirements of the FEMA agreement.

Some of the FEMA regulations he explained include: competitive bidding statewide required; no changes to the work without FEMA review and approval; once bought the property must be open space only – to change use FEMA approval is required; and inspection of the properties to verify the restricted use every three years.

The FEMA grant is not a part of the $7.5 million construction costs of the drain project, Smith said, responding to a question from audience member Alan Demarest when he asked, “What is the calculated figure of the project and does it include the FEMA grant?”

Demarest, a Clare resident, questioned the board about the cost and financing for the entire drain renovation project, saying, “You have been running under the radar ever since this started. I wish you would keep people informed.”

Later Demarest added, “You need to maintain transparency. There are many players in this who have no knowledge of this [project].

He also wanted to know when the reconstruction of the bridges would begin. Smith replied, “The US-10 bridges are already under construction by MDOT.

Harrington said the board expects to be ready to levy assessments on property owners, the counties, city and township by late 2020. He said the drain renovation project would be financed through a 20-year bond.
Demarest said, “The local assessment in the City of Clare is a potential ‘budget buster. We are going to [face] a jolt in the general fund.”

Kingsbury said in an email Monday, “The Clare City Commission petitioned the Little Tobacco Drain Board in September 2013 to evaluate and as needed make needed improvements to the drain.  Staff of the City have remained involved since that time attending all publically noticed meetings of the Drain Board.  The City has also worked with and provided the Drain Board and project engineers with requested information including the City’s water, sewer, storm drain, street, bridge and other infrastructure engineering plans, details and specifications.  The City’s Finance Director has for the past six years collected relevant financial information from the Drain Board and its engineers, has worked with the City’s legal counsel relative to the costing of the drain improvements and has carefully projected the financial impact of the at-large drain improvement assessment on the City.  As a direct result of this analysis the projected at-large cost to the City of the drain improvement project has been included in the FY2020/21 to 2023/24 projection years of the City’s FY2019/20 Budget.”

Grant Township Supervisor Dan Dysinger, who also attended the drain board meeting, said “There was a lot of information especially about the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) grant.  I specifically asked about how that FEMA money could be available and was surprised to learn it required a match.  I listened about the complexity, and found using a project manager to wade through the paperwork adds cost.  I would have just used assessment proceeds, buy the properties then make one application to FEMA and get one check, it seems cumbersome do it one step at a time.”

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