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Date: 28.02.2007

City mulls $140 million of debt

    Lancaster City Council is considering taking on $140 million in debt.
    Patrick Hopkins, the city's business administrator, unveiled Mayor Rick Gray's capital-improvement plan, a multiyear blueprint to enhance city services, Tuesday.
    "Almost 80 percent of the total bond issue is on the water side," Hopkins told council.
    Mainly, the money would be spent on a new membrane-water-filtration plant, which is estimated to cost about $81 million.
    "The water system we have now, if it were being built today, would never be approved for use. It's that outdated," Gray said. "With this new system, the water we produce will be as good as bottled water you buy in stores."
    Hopkins said the plant would provide water to the city's water customers for 50 to 70 years. The new plant, instead of using the current sand filters, clarifiers, disinfectants and other chemical treatments, would employ a microfiltration process, resulting in water many times more pure than what is now produced. The membranes are capable of filtering out all known bacteria and almost every known virus.
    Hopkins said upgrades to the city's water system will eventually impact customers' pocketbooks. He said the average water user currently pays about $14.70 per month. With the improvements, that cost could rise $6 or $7 per month, he said.
    But the city's problems go beyond the water-filtration plant. Hopkins said money must also be used to repair and replace the city's aging water lines and water mains.
    Overall, water projects total $94.5 million of the proposed $140 million bond issue.
    Another project discussed was upgrades to City Hall itself. Hopkins said $4.5 million is needed just to "bring it up to code."
    He said a big question facing the city is whether the money would be better spent relocating city government altogether.
    Money from the bonds also could be used to upgrade the city's fleet of vehicles, particularly trucks used for snow removal. He said the winter storm earlier in the month showed the inadequacy of some of the city's equipment, pieces of which are 20 years old.
    Hopkins said the city can afford the bond issue because it is structured so there will be no immediate increase in the city's debt obligation.
    "We would have experienced a $900,000 debt decrease next year," Hopkins said. "So instead of that decrease, our debt load will remain the same."
    Council is expected to vote on the bond issue at its March 13 meeting.
    Also at Tuesday's council meeting, Gray discussed the problems the city experienced with snow removal following the Valentine's Day snow and ice storm.
    Among the many problems the city faced was use of rubber-tipped snow plows. Gray said the city must use rubber-tipped blades because steel-tipped blades could cause damage if they struck manhole and water-line covers in the streets. Also, he said, the city cannot use the same grade of salt used on highways as PennDOT, and the city's salt does not work when the temperature falls below 22 degrees.
    Gray said he held meetings last week with all his department heads, and after discussing all the things that went wrong, they created a list of recommendations to minimize future problems.
    The recommendations include:
    Improving the "internal chain of command" by designating one incident commander to simplify communications.
    Better use of the city's Web site as a communications tool.
    Swifter methods of getting vehicles removed from snow emergency routes.
    Buying additional backhoes to remove snow from side streets and alleys.
    Review and revise procedures for trash and recycling removal by the city's contract hauler during severe weather. Gray said the city's trash removal "failed" in the last storm, causing trash to go uncollected for more than three days. The hauler, he said, must devise a "more timely recovery."
    Gray took the blame for the city's problems, saying it was "a very difficult situation for us to handle. We hope to be better prepared to deal with snow situations in the future," he said.

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