Nearly 80 percent of the $22.7 million the city of Lakeland expects to receive from the federal American Rescue Plan will go to replace a failing sewer trunk in southwest Lakeland, city commissioners decided today.

Commissioners held a workshop this morning to decide how to spend the city’s portion of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid pandemic relief package approved in March.

Commissioners today set these priorities:

  • $17.8 million for the sewer line replacement
  • $1 million for affordable housing seed money
  • $1 million for small business
  • $640,000 to plan for trails and sidewalks connecting downtown Lakeland with the Bonnet Springs Park area.
  • $250,000 for nonprofit arts groups affected by Covid
  • $100,000 for neighborhood programming
  • $60,000 for emergency operations software

Finance Director Michael Brossart explained to commissioners that the American Rescue Plan Act limits state and local governments to some very specific types of fiscal recovery spending. Among them are responding to the public health emergency or its negative economic impact, premium pay for essential workers, and investment in water and sewer.

In addition, commissioners based their requests for the federal dollars on a list of 34 budget priorities they developed in May. The top of that list included affordable housing, downtown redevelopment, reducing the RP Funding Center subsidy, overdue infrastructure projects and the Downtown West area near Bonnet Springs Park.

Sewer trunk

The 2.75-mile gravity sewer in southwest Lakeland, much of it 50 years old, has been repaired so many times that there is insufficient flow to accommodate the city’s growth, Mayor Bill Mutz said after the meeting.

City crews have had to repair multiple holes that get noticed when they form “small sinkholes” in the earth above, Water Utility Director Bill Anderson told commissioners. One result of past repairs is that the pipe, originally 36 inches wide, is now 30 inches in places, he said.

The sewer line needs to be replaced before it fails, Anderson said, adding, “If it does fail, that would mean sewer overflows. The sewers could back up into a lake or start backing up into homes.”

The sewer meanders north-to-south from an area near the Oakhill Mobile Home Community west of Lake Hunter to a pump station at Edgewood Drive and San Gully Road.

The full project is expected to cost $20 million, Anderson said. Currently, the city has budgeted $2.2 million in fiscal 2022 for critical repairs in the southern portion, he said. Anderson estimated the project can be completed in three years, but said it would have taken an additional year if the city had to seek funding through a state revolving loan fund.

By using American Rescue Plan funds for the entire project instead of the state fund, the city could keep from raising wastewater fees by an estimated 1%, according to Anderson.

One complication is that houses have been built atop portions of the sewer line, so the city will have to acquire land to reroute the line, Mutz said.

Affordable housing

Commissioners decided to allocate $1 million of the federal funds to expand affordable housing by offering incentives to private developers who build apartment complexes, such as the newly opened Midtown Lofts, that mix market-rate units with units for tenants eligible for affordable housing grants by meeting income guidelines.

Newly elected Commissioner Mike Musick questioned why the other commissioners settled on affordable housing as their top budget priority last May, asking, “What does that do for the city as a whole?”

Mayor Bill Mutz responded that ensuring adequate housing stock for all income levels ensures a higher quality of life communitywide. Every dollar invested by the city in housing partnerships yields a six-fold return, he added.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden explained that the commission’s approach to affordable housing has evolved in the last few years from direct housing payments to partnering with private developers that have expertise in mixed developments.

Small business

Commissioners granted $500,000 for small businesses requested by Cory Skeates of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and former Mayor Gow Fields of The Business Works Resource Center. Another $500,000 will go to a yet-unnamed organization that will oversee distribution to small businesses affected by the pandemic.

In a letter to Mutz, Skeates and Fields said businesses owned by people of color, women and veterans were disproportionately damaged by the pandemic. The funding would allow the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corp. to set up shop soon in the chamber’s building on Lake Morton and eventually in the chamber’s planned Business Resource Center north of the R.P. Funding Center.

The Black Business Investment Corp. provides loans to small businesses that don’t meet the requirements of conventional banks, according to the letter. The organization serves all small businesses, not just minority-owned businesses, Skeates told commissioners at today’s workshop.

The commission also decided to set aside $500,000 for other small businesses and non-profit organizations impacted by the pandemic. The funds would be distributed and tracked by a third-party organization — not named yet — so that the city wouldn’t incur the cost and staffing time for the federal government’s rigorous reporting and audit standards.

Downtown West connectors

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley asked whether there were large infrastructure projects other than the sewer replacement, and Mutz responded by mentioning the need for more pedestrian connectivity in parts of downtown, particularly in the area around the RP Funding Center and Bonnet Springs Park that has become known as Downtown West.

He displayed a map of proposed walkability enhancements provided to him by Realtor David Bunch, one of the prime movers behind the upcoming 168-acre Bonnet Springs Park:

The orange lines mark proposed walkability projects.

Commissioners decided to allocate $640,000 of the federal dollars toward a study leading to the design of new downtown trails and sidewalks to increase connectivity and walkability.

Non-profit arts groups

Commissioners would like to establish a $250,000 pool for grants to non-profit arts groups who suffered financially during the pandemic. This would be in addition to the $250,000 (perhaps soon to be $275,000) already granted yearly to established arts organizations by the Mayor’s Council on the Arts.

The federal funds would allow the city to spread its support to smaller or newer arts organizations that haven’t received grants previously, commissioners said.

Neighborhood liaisons, emergency operations

McCarley pushed for the $100,000 to improve programming for neighborhoods. The nature of the programs was not specified, but McCarley suggested it could be used to establish neighborhood organizations in parts of the city that currently do not have one.

Commissioners also set aside $60,000 to purchase WebEOC software that would integrate city first responder departments with systems used by Polk County and large health-care organizations during natural disasters and other emergencies.

American Rescue Plan Workshop from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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