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Niles pursuing grants for infrastructure

Staff file photo / Allie Vugrincic Workers with the city of Niles work to pump water out of a hole at the intersection of North Main Street and West Park Avenue downtown on March 24. A water-main break closed the area to traffic. Replacing the city’s aging infrastructure is a top priority for Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz and the city has received grants to do so.

NILES — Big changes are in the works in the city for upgrading and maintaining infrastructure.

One of the most highly spoken of topics in Niles, other than annexation, is the city’s aging infrastructure and the continued fight on neighborhood blight. At a recent city council meeting, several grants were approved for the city to seek. On top of the major investment in two 24-inch water valves valued at $200,000 per valve and $1.3 million going toward street resurfacing, the city seems to be pursuing grants to combat the issues with the old infrastructure.

“When I took office, we wanted to be aggressive in pursuing these types of grants whether it be for housing and demolition, infrastructure or community grants,” Niles Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz said.

Thus far in 2021, the city is looking to receive more than $1 million in grant money while spending a little more than $900,000 of the city’s money, meaning the city is coming out ahead with respect to how much it is putting into the reinvestment into the city compared to how much grant money it is getting in return.

“You want to make sure you have enough match to cover the minimum percentage or requirement plus anything additional so the more money we can put up to the total project cost, the better chance we have in being awarded that project,” Mientkiewicz said.

The amount of grant money in addition to the supposed $3.56 million the city will get in American Rescue Plan Act money is a tremendous help for the city’s infrastructure if the guidelines permit the money to be used for it, Mientkiewicz said.

“We have preliminary plans in place about how we are going about spending those dollars and the majority of it is going toward the city’s aging infrastructure, specifically the public water system,” he said. “To fund a million-dollar or multimillion-dollar project is something the city hasn’t seen in quite some time. … If we’re able to, that’s where our focus is going to be.”

WATER ISSUES

It’s no secret for the residents of Niles that water breaks happen almost daily. Grant money that helps fight and reduce these types of breaks is a step in the right direction, Mientkiewicz said. However, there is more to simply changing out the waterlines and valves that become faulty.

Mientkiewicz said about 25 12- and 24-inch valves are around the city.

“Most of our plan we have set now is geared to the public water system. As we see with our Ohio Public Works Commission grant, two valves is $400,000, so it’s going to be very costly,” Mientkiewicz said. “We are planning long term.”

He added the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has stringent guidelines in keeping with public safety, but years of neglect led to problems.

“Right now we are working with the EPA to rectify issues with our backflow prevention program. That was something that had not occurred in the past or enough attention was not given to that program to the point where it met EPA guidelines,” Mientkiewicz said. “Same goes with the valve exercising program. You have hundreds of valves that have not been exercised probably since they were put in and that is nothing more than neglect to the system.”

This time of year, Mientkiewicz noted the city is out of “water break season” and typical disruptions residents see now is preventative maintenance. In keeping with EPA requirements, much focus has been on the public water system.

“It has to be when we’re talking about public drinking water and public health and safety. We want to make sure we have clean water and make sure our system is being maintenanced on a routine basis, and if there are any issues in our system, it is rectified in a timely manner for the safety of our citizens,” Mientkiewicz said.

The water system has numerous problem areas, but Mientkiewicz said one of the most pressing is North Road.

“It’s been a problem for years. In our preliminary plan for the COVID-19 funds, we have that area targeted because of the high number of water breaks there,” he said. “In that area alone we could spend all that $3.56 million, but we are looking to spread that money around as much as we can in our problem-prone areas.”

Mientkiewicz added the need to be able to isolate where breaks happen. If that doesn’t happen, water can flow for a constant period of time, much like a recent water break downtown.

“That’s water loss, undermining and ultimately backflow into those waterlines if you can’t get those valves shut,” he said.

FIGHT THE BLIGHT

Blighted properties in the city also are on the radar of elected officials in Niles. After reviving the Niles Citywide Demolition Program in recent years and already taking down some blighted homes and the old Garfield School building, the program looks to continue demolishing blighted homes as well as the vacant Niles Times building downtown.

The program is designated to tear down properties that are beyond repair and are creating public nuisances.

“What we’re doing with our program is demolishing the worst of the worst in the city. They’ve been let go for years and years and years and neglected over time,” Mientkiewicz said.

Typically, the city pairs with the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership and the Trumbull County Land Bank for assistance with demolishing these properties with no cost to the city. The Niles Times demolition, however, will come out of the city’s funding. The price tag is $30,000.

The Citywide Demolition Program is looking to adding another four homes to the list. The cost for demolitions are roughly $6,000 per home. But a program within the city could help homeowners with upgrades so the properties can try to be saved.

The Community Housing Impact and Preservation program allows for homeowners to pursue money to allow for property upgrades such as roofing, windows and siding.

“All anyone has to do is call the housing department and request those funds. We will line them up with a process they need to follow through in order to receive that funding,” Mientkiewicz said.

He added the housing department suggests the program if there are code violations and citations given to the property owner.

“We would like to see more rehabilitation of the properties, but there has to be a buy-in from that property owner,” Mientkiewicz said. “The city has the resources and the funding, but people have to pursue it.”

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