MOKANE — Mokane is pursuing funding to perform extensive repairs on the city's water and sewer system, described as the worst in the 30-county Department on Natural Resources region.
A Friday morning meeting in the small town brought together representatives from the local government, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, various contractors and community members.
"We're doing this right," Mokane Mayor Pro-Tem Chad Booher said. "We don't want it to be a burden on the community."
DNR Regional Director Irene Crawford said Mokane's water system was installed in the '60s and has barely been maintained — much less updated. During a June 2018 meeting with Mokane aldermen and Callaway County Commissioners, she described it as the worst in her region.
In 2018, the city was relying on a chlorinator on loan from the DNR to keep the city's water drinkable. Aldermen took turns driving past sewage pumps to make sure they hadn't sprung leaks. Crawford said the DNR has been trying to enforce water regulations in Mokane for the past 15 years. Prior to 2018, a cooperative ran Mokane's water system.
Part of the issue, according to city officials at the time, was a lack of funds: At the time of that meeting, the city had approximately 100 unmetered connections to the water system, paying $25 per month each; sewer connections cost $35 per month.
As recently as January, aldermen were complaining of ongoing issues with delinquent accounts and difficulty enforcing discontinuation threats. In June, the city partnered with a new company to track payments.
Issues continue today. On Sept. 20, the city posted to its official Facebook page the 3rd Street/Fulton Road lift station was out of service due to a broken discharge line and a hole in the tank. The Facebook page also documents regular repairs to problem areas.
With current repair efforts, the city is working to provide oversight and make sure repairs are done "at the lowest possible cost without giving up on quality," Booher said in a Facebook post.
"The Haynes Equipment Company has been completely transparent explaining their work every step of the way, even coming to our monthly city council meetings to answer questions and in some cases bringing the equipment they're replacing to give us a hands-on look," he wrote. "We also have a representative at each job to provide oversight and they are training him to take care of minor issues which will eliminate the need for most service calls from the company."
The city plans to work with the company in making extensive repairs to both systems, though Haynes Equipment employee Zak Herst said the scope of the work hasn't yet been set out in a contract.
"We've done work with city for the past couple of years on different projects," Herst said Monday. "That's still debates on how far they want to go into it. I haven't heard for sure on how big (the project will be)."
Booher said the city's water system would need to be entirely replaced and water meters would need to be added. Repairs and improvements are needed at the city's sewer lagoons and several frequently flooded lift stations.
"What most people don't know is that I and city maintenance head Dennis Hoffmann monitor the one lift station that's in the worst condition daily, up to once every three hours if it's raining — we take turns checking on it at 3 a.m," Booher said.
He said the total bill for all needed work is tentatively estimated at $2.5 million.
But for those repairs to be possible, the city needs funding. City officials are pursuing a number of potential grants and federal low-interest loans.
"Failure to get this funding could possibly result in the City of Mokane being dissolved and a private corporation buying the water and sewer system and doing all the upgrades," Booher said. "This has happened to other towns in similar situations as us. We have been told water and sewer rates could realistically skyrocket if this happens."
Crawford threatened similar consequences in 2018, warning the city could be put into receivership.
During Friday's meeting, city officials met with representatives from a number or organizations that may be able to help: the USDA, DNR, Midwest Assistance Program and Mid-Missouri Regional Planning Center.
Booher said between USDA's low-interest loans, several grants, FEMA aid following this year's flooding (which can be used to increase the height of the levees around the sewer lagoons) and a sewer grant from MAP, the city should be able to make the needed repairs without huge rate increases. Another DNR grant the city is pursuing will allow it to clean out a creek that frequently floods pump stations.
To receive those loans and grants, city officials must prove they're putting in a good-faith effort to improve Mokane's infrastructure. Booher said they're actively working on that.
"As we repair problems with residential water hookups, we're placing meter wells, which will eventually house those water meters," he said. "We're being proactive there."
The city also recently purchased its own chlorinator (it had previously been borrowing one from the DNR) and built a brand-new pumphouse with help from community volunteers and partial funding from the Mokane Lions Club. It's blue and white — the South Callaway school colors.
Booher said there's one last big thing the city must do to be considered eligible for many grants.
"We will have to have a bond issue," he said. "Some of the grants require it."
City officials' next step is to meet with a Kansas City company that specializes in walking cities through preparing municipal bond issues. Callaway County has worked with this company before, Booher said. City officials hope to have that meeting by the end of the year.
In the meantime, Booher plans to continue posting regularly about progress on the city's Facebook page, and welcomes all concerned and curious citizens to attend the monthly board of alderman meetings in the town's new city hall.