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Niagara Falls allocates $676,000 to prevent frozen pipes

NIAGARA FALLS – The city government is moving forward with a project that it believes will prevent residents on 72nd Street from dealing with the nightmare of going weeks without running water in their homes again this winter.

The City Council on Thursday allocated roughly $676,000 in casino funds toward a plan unveiled by Mayor Paul A. Dyster two weeks ago to install roughly 3,000 feet of new waterline on a portion of 72nd Street just south of Niagara Falls Boulevard.

City officials are hoping to have at least some of the costs for the project reimbursed by the state, as well as by the Niagara Falls Water Board, a separate agency from the city that owns and is responsible for water and sewer infrastructure.

Thursday’s Council meeting was called in order to be able to meet Friday’s application deadline for the new Water Grant Program under the state Department of Health and the Environmental Facilities Corp. Under the program, up to 60 percent of a project’s costs – as much as $2 million – is reimbursable. There is also a hardship provision, based on median income and public health considerations, that could bring up to 75 percent reimbursement.

The Council voted unanimously to appropriate the funding, most of which had been earmarked by the Dyster administration to repave a section of Portage Road this year but had not been formally allocated by city lawmakers. Dyster said the city’s Engineering Department reported that the Portage project was unlikely to be finished by the time snowplows hit the streets for the season.

“We’re trying to avoid the people on 72nd Street having to wait out the outcome of a long legal wrangle,” Dyster said, “so no project gets done except for the city and the Water Board pointing fingers at each other.

“My understanding was that Council wanted decisive action taken on this,” Dyster said.

Water Board officials have pledged to support the city’s grant application with a letter, the mayor said.

Roughly 250 homes citywide lost water service at some point last winter. Many homes, especially in a cluster on 72nd Street, were without water for weeks. It was the second straight winter season in which a large number of residents had to deal with frozen pipes.

Crews began digging test holes in May as officials sought data on the issue.

The project to be undertaken by the city, expected to be completed sometime in November, will install a new water main from Stephenson Avenue to Niagara Falls Boulevard. The existing water main in this section was not replaced when the city paid for a reconstruction project on 72nd Street in 2010. The Water Board did replace the water main on 72nd south of Stephenson.

During the meeting in City Hall, Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian pressed Dyster about trying to recoup costs from whatever entity is to blame.

“I like what you’re doing, proactive to make the job done, get the water flowing,” Choolokian said, “but shouldn’t we, just like Lewiston Road, shouldn’t we be going after the person whose fault this is and not put it on the taxpayers?” Choolokian was referring to another road reconstruction project that ended up with the city bringing a lawsuit.

Dyster said the city, which is hoping to eventually enter into an agreement with the Water Board for the board to take over maintenance of the new line, is not giving up any rights to take steps in the future in that regard.

Also on Thursday, the Water Board unveiled a report about its investigation into the frozen pipes of the last two winters.

In a statement accompanying the report, the board said its review found – as the city’s did – that the causes of the problems were extensive periods of record low temperatures, inadequate fill material surrounding the water main, and pipes connecting the main to individual homes that were at “inadequate depths.”

“The report clearly depicts that the privately owned frozen water service laterals were the result of several factors, none of which are the liability of the (Water Board),” the statement said.

“However, the (Water Board) is very sensitive to this issue that several customers dealt with this past winter as we experienced the most severe and coldest February in our area’s history.”

City officials were quick to note that release of the Water Board report came a day before the state grant deadline, meaning that if the city waited for the board to take up a project, it likely wouldn’t have been eligible for grant funds this year, they said.

“We hoped the Water Board would have taken the lead on this situation. Unfortunately, they didn’t,” said Council Chairman Andrew P. Touma. He said receiving the Water Board’s report one day before the grant is due was “unacceptable,” and should be unacceptable to his colleagues.

The city’s next priority on this issue will be to address frozen water pipe problems in the area of Independence Avenue, Dyster said, adding that city crews will do some additional road repair work on Portage to make sure it gets through the winter.