What a relief it is: $100 million pledge for Albany sewer system excites city officials

Dec. 28—ALBANY — What a difference $100 million makes. With news that the city of Albany has been authorized sufficient funding to complete the first phase of renovating its sewage system, city officials are breathing a bit easier.

While the authorization, contained in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last week, does not mean an immediate payment, it does offer a path for funding the shortfall needed for the $135 million project.

This is an "authorization as opposed to an appropriation, meaning the city will not receive a lump sum, but rather over a number of years through the annual appropriations process," Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said, quoting an email sent by the city's D.C. lobbying consultant.

To ensure that the promise is fulfilled, the city will have to work with members of Congress in the state to keep them on task to actually approve the funding, the mayor said.

Still, it is good news for the city, which is facing a June 2025 deadline to achieve 85% separation of sewage from stormwater in the combined sewage system. That project is Phase I of a three-phase modernization project for the sewer system.

"Congressman (Sanford) Bishop was in town a couple of years ago for one of the COVID (news) conferences," Dorough said of the federal funding. "He told us it's happening, it's just going to take time."

With the promise of some $109 million for the project, city leaders can now contemplate the final two phases of the project and how to pay for them.

"I mean, we have been so focused on securing what we originally calculated at $105 million but is now $135 million," Dorough said. "The $105 million (estimate) was pre-COVID. Materials and construction costs have increased by 25%. We've been so focused on finishing the first phase."

The overall cost for all three phases for updating the sewage system is $350 million.

The city's need for funds has been a factor in negotiations with Dougherty County over the split of a penny sales tax. The deadline for the two governments reaching an agreement is Friday. If the two sides fail to make a deal, the $117 million in collections over 10 years for the local-option sales tax will be forfeited.

Asked whether the news of federal funding will make a difference in the city's willingness to come to an agreement, the mayor responded, "Absolutely."

The county has dug in on insisting on the same split that has existed for decades, with 60% of collections going to the city and 40% to the county. The County Commission voted earlier this month to reject the city's last offer of keeping the split at 60-40 for five years and then increasing the city's share by 1% each year over the remaining five years.

The City Commission has scheduled a special called meeting for Thursday, and one proposal will be to accept the county's proposal.

"It's the last day we have to make a deal," Ward VI Commissioner Demetrius Young said. "We felt like we need to come together and deliberate one final time."

While Young said he thinks the city has the better case, based on population and providing the "lion's share" of services to residents, the county's offer, or lack of one, is apparently the only option with time winding down.

"I don't want to say how the vote's going to go," he said. " At the end of the day, though, it's a political decision. Do we have a problem with either government providing services? No. It's just that the political bodies have a hard time agreeing."

In addition to the potential for providing a financial fix to the funding issue on the first phase of sewer system repairs, the federal authorization also looks to decrease the pressure on city residents, according to Albany City Manager Steven Carter.

The only way the city could have funded the project locally was through some combination of tax and/or utility rate increases, and through borrowing loans and bonds, both of which would have to be paid by residents, he said.

"It's very encouraging," Carter said of the federal budget authorization. "Even though I don't have a check in my hand today, just having this promise of getting it takes pressure off funding sewer (renovations)."