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Sewer deal raises stink over bidding

By Charles Sercombe

By a slim majority, the City Council OK’d a deal to hire an engineering company to apply for a $1 million state grant to figure out how to repair the city’s sewer system.

There is no question whether the city’s decades old sewer system needs fixing. A number of Hamtramck basements have long been subject to backups of foul sewer and rain water when heavy rains fall.

But coming to an agreement on applying for the grant raised the thorny issue of whether the city can legally sidestep a charter requirement to bid out anything costing over $10,000.

The council met in a special meeting Tuesday night, and the city attorney said the city had only one month to OK the application. The resolution on the table was to hire Hennessey Engineers for $9,000 to prepare and submit the application.

Although the initial cost was under the bidding requirement, the application would designate Hennessey as the company to perform the study. Hennessey has already estimated how much it will cost to perform the study, based on its previous work on the city’s sewer system.

The company is also acting as an expert witness for the city’s defense in a lawsuit filed by over 100 residents who suffered damages from a massive flooding over a year ago.

Hennessey would be in line to receive $630,000 from the grant. That’s where the concern arose over whether the city can legally depend on this one estimate.

City Attorney James Allen argued that the city would be excused from the bidding requirement because it’s the state that is “attaching strings” on the city to designate up front who the engineering company would be. And, he said, there is too little time to bid out the cost of the study.

The grant was announced Sept. 1, Allen said, and applications must be submitted by Sept. 30.

The state, Allen said, would also review Hennessey’s cost for the study and determine if it was an accurate estimate.

But Finance Director Nevrus Nazarko cautioned that the city can’t rely on just one estimate.

After about an hour of going back and forth on the subject, the council split on the vote to approve the application. Councilmembers Tom Jankowski, who first brought up the issue of whether the city can get around the bid requirement, and Cathie Gordon voted against the proposal.

Councilmembers Catrina Stackpoole and Mohammed Hassan voted in favor. The tie vote required Mayor Karen Majewski to weigh in, and she voted in favor of the application.

Councilmembers Shahab Ahmed and Kazi Miah were absent.

In the meantime, City Manager Bill Cooper said he would check with state officials about the bidding requirement.
The council also has a second part to vote on at next Tuesday’s council meeting. In that meeting, the council has to agree to terms of the grant, which requires the city to repay the state $1 million if repairs to the sewer system aren’t made within two years of receiving the grant.

Cost estimates aren’t in yet, but it is believed repairs would run into the tens of millions of dollars to fix the system.

The state will announce who won the grants next January. There is $40 million for the state to divide up. The city can opt not to accept the grant without being penalized.

During the next few months, city officials will have their work cut out to find funding sources for the repair project. Possible funding could come from state or federal grants, or from a municipal bond — in other words a loan — that could be paid back over time.

Accepting a loan would be a tall order, considering that the city is facing a budget deficit within the next year.

Not fixing the sewer system, however, will only mean continued basement flooding.

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