‘A new trajectory’: DeKalb, EPA tout $284M loan for water projects

Dekalb CEO Michael Thurmond speaks at a press conference in Decatur announcing a $284 million water infrastructure finance and innovation act loan to Dekalb County on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Dekalb CEO Michael Thurmond speaks at a press conference in Decatur announcing a $284 million water infrastructure finance and innovation act loan to Dekalb County on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Flanked by homes, heavy machinery and, mercifully, many shade-providing trees, DeKalb County officials and bigwigs from the Environmental Protection Agency gathered on Miriam Lane Thursday morning.

One after another, they touted the potential that comes with a new, $284-million federal loan the county will use to complete water infrastructure projects — big, vital undertakings like the nearly finished water main replacement in the same south DeKalb community where they stood.

“In many instances here in DeKalb, we’re dealing with over 100 years of necessary replacement of pipes and infrastructure,” county Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson said at the press conference. “Through the expansion, replacement and enlarging of those pipes, it increases our capacity to grow as a county. And it creates a new trajectory for us all.”

DeKalb leaders have largely neglected the county’s water and sewer infrastructure for decades, standing by as decrepit pipes, mismanagement and sometimes corruption created a steady stream of headaches and health concerns for residents.

ExploreDeKalb approves hike in water and sewer rates

County CEO Michael Thurmond, though, has made reversing that trend a priority since taking office in 2017. The quarter-billion-dollar Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan that was formally announced Thursday will go a long way toward helping pay for improvements.

“These WIFIA loans make it possible for us to correct years, quite frankly, of neglect, where we did not make the proper investments,” Thurmond said. “Because EPA has been such an important and engaged partner with DeKalb County, we are able to make the investments and do it in a way that is not overly burdensome to our ratepayers.”

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U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox speaks at a press conference in Decatur announcing a $284 million water infrastructure finance and innovation act loan to Dekalb County on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox
speaks at a press conference in Decatur announcing a $284 million water infrastructure finance and innovation act loan to Dekalb County on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox speaks at a press conference in Decatur announcing a $284 million water infrastructure finance and innovation act loan to Dekalb County on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The federal loan program offers local governments infrastructure funding with lower interest rates than the general market. DeKalb recently approved a 6% water and sewer rate hike for residents, the first such increase in several years. It goes into effect in August.

But officials have said it could’ve been much worse if the county took another approach to financing long-awaited improvements.

Radhika Fox, an assistant administrator in the EPA’s Office of Water, said Thursday that the county stands to save $62 million over the life of the loan.

“There is so much to celebrate,” Fox said. “I want to congratulate DeKalb on your achievement today. And more to come.”

The new WIFIA loan is actually the second DeKalb has secured in less than two years, a feat that Fox called “quite an accomplishment.”

Money from a $265-million loan announced in the fall of 2020 is primarily being focused on county sewer projects.

Overall, DeKalb has committed to spending more than $2 billion to repair, improve and expand the county’s water and wastewater systems, a sum that includes hundreds of millions of dollars in sewer projects mandated by a renegotiated agreement with state and federal environmental regulators.