City faces drainage dilemma

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 14, 2008

DEMOPOLIS &8212; Since 1972, Ruthie Williams and her family have lived at 720 E. Decatur St. Also since that time, she and her neighbors have been trying to get the city to fix the eyesore that encompasses nearly two sides of her property: an unsightly drainage ditch littered with trash and debris.

Crushed aluminum cans, plastic wrappers, old car parts and abandoned shopping carts are a few of the items found in the ditches near the Williams house. But their property is not the only one plagued by poorly maintained drainage ditches.

A ditch approximately 10 feet in width at its widest parts and only a few feet wide at its narrow parts continues for a span of several city blocks in the northeast side of the city.

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Most of the properties belong to families who have children. U.S. Jones Elementary is within a block of one of the more unsightly parts of the ditch. Although all of Williams&8217; children are grown, she said the health hazards presented by the poor drainage is still a big problem for she and her neighbors.

Councilman Thomas Moore, whose district contains a large portion of the unkempt drainage ditches, said he has been looking for ways to fund a project to fix the drainage problem since he was first elected to the council in 1992.

In previous years, Moore said, federal funds from community development block grants had done some work at the lower end of the drainage, but there is still much work to be done. Also, a planning grant written for the city already had the project slated to be completed in the future.

Mike Baker, director of public works, said his crews are constantly going out to these areas to clean out the debris, especially after heavy rainfall. But due to the undergrowth and the lack of infrastructure for the drainage system, the workload is more than the crews can accommodate.

Last week, the City Council took a step toward bringing the drainage project back to life. Through the Alabama Tombigbee Regional Commission, the city agreed to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to complete a $2 million project specifically to repair the drainage in this area of the city.

The federal grant, if secured, would cover $1,395, 806 of the cost of the project, which is 75 percent. The city&8217;s contribution would be 25 percent, or $485,268.

According to John Clyde Riggs, executive director of ATRC, the city began work on another drainage project in nearby district two, known as the Whitfield Canal project, two years ago. At the time, there were not enough funds to continue work into district one. The city had also previously applied for FEMA funds to pay for such a project, but did not receive them. So when unexpended FEMA funds became available recently, Riggs again brought the council a proposal to apply for the federal grant to fund 75 percent of the project.

At the same meeting, the council was presented with a deteriorating bridge on West Jackson Street that could cost up to $134,000 to repair. According to Councilman Woody Collins, a large number of projects in the works &045; including a new municipal complex, a new fire station and an athletic complex &045; made it difficult to vote in favor of yet another capital improvement project.

Moore described the drainage problems in the northeast side of the city as both a health and safety hazard. Riggs said it was one of the most serious drainage problems he has seen in his career of working on similar projects. Other councilmen agreed.

After more detailed discussion, the council voted on a motion to take out the 25 percent matching funds, approximately $485,000, of the city&8217;s reserves to be set aside for the project. Four of the councilmen and the mayor voted yes, while Collins voted no.

In a later interview, Collins said he supported the project &8220;100 percent,&8221; but was concerned about the city&8217;s finances. He said the project needed to be done, but not at the expense of cutting further into the city&8217;s reserves.

Moore later said he fully expected the grant to be awarded, and hopes work will begin within the next year. The project is set up with two priority areas so that if the grant funds do not cover the total cost of the project, the areas with the most need will have work done first.