Some displeased with pace of flood work in Champaign

Some displeased with pace of flood work in Champaign

CHAMPAIGN — Residents presented city council members with a battle over scarce city dollars for flood relief on Tuesday night while officials approved their four-year plan for how to spend the money from a new storm-water fee.

Champaign has an $80 million backlog of needed storm-water drainage projects on its to-do list, but limited money to pay for them. City officials expect to receive $2.7 million annually from the storm-water fee, for which they started billing property owners in May.

With limited capacity for more loans and limited staff to work on the projects, city council members decided they will only have enough money to pay for projects in three areas — and only one of those areas will see any kind of tangible flood relief.

Council members, however, were confident that the city is on the right path to correct Champaign's long history with flooded basements and swamped streets — slow though it may be — and they unanimously approved projects in the Washington Street West watershed, the Boneyard Creek north of University Avenue and a Garden Hills drainage study.

"I'm optimistic that we have a very cautious and prudent plan," said Mayor Don Gerard.

Of the $7.8 million city officials plan to spend on those three areas in the next four years, the only construction that would take place would be of a detention basin on Robinson Court, part of the Washington Street West watershed. That detention basin is expected to cost $2.5 million, according to city documents.

The rest of that money would pay for engineering design and property acquisition as city officials plan for construction in the future. Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt said the real flooding fixes in those areas will take place over the next eight to 10 years.

"What we're really doing here is initiating the next step after some planning work," Schmidt said.

For residents near West Washington Street who were largely left out of a previous flood relief effort, when the city borrowed about $25 million in 2010 to fix drainage problems in two adjacent watersheds, the pace is not fast enough.

The Robinson Court detention basin is the first of three phases to resolve that area's flooding, and Tuesday's decision will pay for design work on the second two phases. But residents there will have to wait at least until after 2017 for the second two phases to move into construction.

Washington Street West steering committee spokesman Jim Creighton said his neighbors were expecting more as city officials instituted a storm-water fee and promised relief.

"This is the first time I've heard this information, and I'm stunned that we're making the citizens of my neighborhood wait another four years," Creighton said.

Ebbie Cook lives in the neighborhood surrounding Fifth and Hill streets, and he said residents there felt left out, too.

"Our neighborhood has been flooding ever since I was a kid," Cook said. "We're talking back in the '40s."

One of the projects the city council OK'd on Tuesday was design work and property acquisition to increase the capacity of the Boneyard Creek north of University Avenue. That $2.9 million project is expected to relieve flooding issues in Cook's neighborhood, but again, residents will have to wait at least until after 2017 for any construction and tangible relief.

Council member Vic McIntosh assured those residents that Boneyard Creek fixes helped the campus area, and it will have the same effect north of University Avenue.

"I feel very confident that when we do the next phase of the Boneyard from University coming north, your issues will be solved," McIntosh said.

City council members declined to take on more debt to accelerate the pace of the drainage projects. City debt "is now in the high end of the middle range" after a few large projects were financed in the past 10 years, according to city documents. That includes the 2007 and 2008 bonds issued to finance the Hill Street parking deck and the 2005 debt taken on to build the new library.

"We can't solve all of the city's problems in one fell swoop, and we can't borrow to do that," said council member Tom Bruno.

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