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Havre de Grace voters overwhelmingly approve $15 million bond bill measure to fund water system improvements

May Kuroiwa, of Havre de Grace, stands on Pennington Avenue near City Hall Tuesday, holding a sign encouraging people to vote in favor of a $15 million city bond referendum, allowing the city to borrow money to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure.
May Kuroiwa, of Havre de Grace, stands on Pennington Avenue near City Hall Tuesday, holding a sign encouraging people to vote in favor of a $15 million city bond referendum, allowing the city to borrow money to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure.(David Anderson)

Voters in Havre de Grace approved Tuesday, by an overwhelming margin, a measure allowing the city to borrow up to $15 million in bond funding to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure, as well as build new infrastructure.

The measure was approved, in a special election, with 815 people voting “yes” and 335 people voting “no,” giving the “yes” camp a 70.7 percent margin out of the 1,152 total ballots cast.

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George Deibel, chair of the city’s Board of Elections, announced the results in the City Council chamber in Havre de Grace City Hall Tuesday night — the chamber served as a polling place throughout the day.

“I’m very pleased with the voter turnout and more importantly, I think the voters nailed it,” said Mayor William T. Martin, who also was on hand in City Hall after the results were announced.

He and other city leaders have spent recent weeks providing information to residents via the city website, mailers and public presentations in communities such as Bulle Rock about the need for Havre de Grace to obtain the bond funding.

Martin has stressed that the aging water and sewer infrastructure must be fixed, and borrowing via the bond market is expected to have the least impact on city taxpayers — other options included grants, a special assessment on property owners, or to “pay as you go” existing revenues, although water and sewer rates would need to be increased by more than 33% to generate enough revenue, according to a Q&A posted on the city website.

City officials arrived at the decision to seek bond funding based on recommendations from the Havre de Grace Water and Sewer Commission and those in an extensive study of the municipal water and sewer system conducted by the engineering firm Black & Veatch in 2017. The city spent about $100,000 on the study, the mayor said Tuesday.

Havre de Grace leaders will go to the bond market in April, and they hope to get an interest rate “well below” the maximum of 4%, Martin said. Multiple projects will be designed, and the city will “draw down” from bond funds once they are ready for construction, he said.

The mayor noted many people either called or visited City Hall to ask questions ahead of the bond referendum, saying “those who took the time to learn about it, I believe made an educated choice in the election.”

“Moving forward, we will expend this money as prudently as possible to do the greatest impact we can to fix the infrastructure of our city, so that future generations won’t have to deal with it for a while,” Martin said.

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First-time voter John Narvell fills out his ballot while voting in a Havre de Grace special election Tuesday on whether or not the city should borrow up to $15 million in bond funding to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure.
First-time voter John Narvell fills out his ballot while voting in a Havre de Grace special election Tuesday on whether or not the city should borrow up to $15 million in bond funding to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure.(David Anderson)

Voters: yes or no?

People filed in and out of City Hall Tuesday afternoon to fill out paper ballots and then put them in a small box.

City resident May Kuroiwa stood along Pennington Avenue near the municipal building holding a small sign with the word “Yes” written on it — she held it up as motorists passed along Pennington.

One driver flashed a thumbs-up signal at her.

Kuroiwa said people “mostly” gave her thumbs-up signs, although “I’ve had one man pass, very vigorously doing this,” miming a thumbs-down signal.

She noted her husband sits on the Havre de Grace Water & Sewer Commission, which recommended bond funding as the “least painful” way of obtaining the money needed to fix water and sewer infrastructure.

“This is so important for the town,” Kuroiwa said. “Vote ‘yes,’ it’s the right thing for our city.”

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Rich and Christina Wehner moved from Joppa to the Scenic Manor community in Havre de Grace about two years ago. Both said they were against the bond referendum, noting the city should use its existing funds rather than borrow additional money and risk imposing new fees or taxes on residents to repay the debt.

Rich Wehner said he voted “an emphatic ‘no’" on the referendum.

“I’m not sure I could have drawn that X any harder,” he said.

Christina Wehner noted their Havre de Grace utility bill, which is much higher than when she and her husband were on Harford County water and sewer, has about “$80 worth of additional line items, over and above the water in and the sewer out” charges.

The mayor has said revenue raised through a $30 quarterly infrastructure replacement fee, imposed on water bills starting July 1, 2019, would be used for debt service on the bonds. The borrowed money will be combined with other city revenues to support a total 10-year capital improvement plan for water and sewer of about $24 million.

John Narvell, 18, voted in his first-ever election Tuesday and said he supported the bond measure.

“I just think that it’s something that should be fixed and taken care of urgently,” he said of the infrastructure.

His mother, Kari, who snapped photos of John as he filled out his ballot, said she also voted in favor of the bond measure.

“We would rather be proactive than reactive,” she said. “It has to be fixed, one way or the other.”

George Kasnic stood outside City Hall, holding his family dog, Dexter, on a leash while his wife, Donna, was inside voting — they switched duties once Donna finished in the polling place.

George said “the work has to be done” and that “taxes and bonds and things like this are the price of civilization.”

“I like to have water when I turn on the spigot so it’s easy for me,” he said of his “yes” vote.

Donna Kasnic also voted in favor of the bond referendum, saying the city “can kick the can down [the road] or they can face” the issue, “Which I think is a good thing, long term.”

“For a town the size of Havre de Grace, with the budget that we have, to have this kind of financial injection, it’s just what we’re going to need to do the job,” the mayor said of the bond funding.

He noted many cities and towns in Maryland face the same challenges with aging water and sewer lines, and it is very difficult to get grants from the state.

“We’re on our own, and the citizens tonight said, ‘You’re right, we’re on our own, and we’re going to take care of our own problems — we’re going to fix it ourselves,’” Martin said.

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