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Q&A: Mayor Mwilambwe On Providing Flood Relief And Separating Sewers

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe
Emily Bollinger
Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe.

Some are pushing the Bloomington City Council to consider direct financial relief to residents who sustained damage in the historic June flooding.

Hundreds of people filed claims with the city's insurer – arguing the sewer system was partially at fault for the water and sewage that flooded basements. Almost all of those claims were rejected.

Speaking Thursday on WGLT’s Sound Ideas, Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said he has some questions about what that financial assistance could look like.

WGLT: Do you think the city needs to come up with a plan to provide some sort of direct financial relief to those whose basements were flooded in sewage partially?

Mwilambwe: I think this is something that we all are in the process of discussing. And by discussing, I mean we're just kind of discussing the totality of the event, and also looking at ways for the city to address some of the infrastructure concerns that have been brought forward. So that definitely is, I think, a conversation that the council has an interest in.

"From my perspective, I tend to prefer to pool our resources. Because our resources are limited, there's only so much we can do."
Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe

But like I said at the council meeting on Monday, whatever decisions we make, it’s always a question of trade-offs. You have to decide, what are you willing to give up in order for this to happen?

I can tell you from my perspective, I tend to prefer to pool our resources. Because our resources are limited, there's only so much we can do. So, the question is, if you provide compensation to a certain group of individuals, well, how much do you do that for? And who are those individuals? How do you decide who is entitled to that compensation? Because there are also some other people who had insurance, but we had co-pays and no deductibles -- that they had to pay. So what about all those people?

Now, is it better to pool all that money together to address some of the infrastructure issues? Those are some of the questions that we're going to have to discuss.

I spent some time this week with a bunch of neighbors who live in the 900 block of West Monroe on the city's west side. They had tons of sewage backup flooding in their basements, and they've all been denied claims by the city's insurer, and they're pretty upset about that. They feel pretty let down by the city at this moment. What's your response to people like that?

Well, I think that the response is for them to continue to be engaged and to continue to be part of the conversation. And then for us to work together as a community to address those issues.

I should also add that we're -- there's nothing is promised -- poking just about everywhere, to try to see how people can be helped. We're talking to folks at IEMA. We've had the Small Business Administration, on site. People can submit applications for loans online. We're talking to folks at the state level, some of our local legislators, just to see what else is available.

You also have to remember, when things like this happen … it hasn't happened often, at least not of recent memory, on this level. You certainly don't want to have too much experience with it. Everybody's just kind of, you know, we're taking one step at a time and knocking on this door and that door and seeing what can be done.

Earlier this week, Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason was on another radio station in town, WJBC, and he said, “There's nothing wrong with our sewer system at all.” Do you think he's right?

I think so. At this point, I know people are upset. They're trying to find answers and things like that. But I would say that, generally, we have been pretty diligent about making repairs to our sewer system whenever we can.

But remember, we have about 85 miles of combined sewer, primarily in the core of the city which is older. And that's a fairly large undertaking to try to undo all of that.

And, as our Director of Public Works stated, even that might not fix everything. Because you also have, surface water runoff issues, particularly in the area of the downtown where there's more impervious area than there is in other places. So there's a lot of concrete down there.

And I appreciate people being patient, but at the same time I understand those who are impatient.

I am definitely committed. I talked about infrastructure during my campaign. And that's something I think we need to take a look at, and decide which direction we're going to go. What is our commitment level?

The sewer master plan that was put together in 2013 kind of laid out some general principles about how we're going to go about addressing some of these issues. And one of them is financial efficiency. And it's not just throwing money at it, because there's not enough money to go around to be able to address some of these issues, especially within a certain period of time.

So we have to look at, for example, the downtown area, maybe more detention basins. Looking at other sort of green initiatives, so that you don't have to go and excavate a lot of stuff underground, which is can cause a lot of disruption for not only businesses but residents.

I assume that if you could wave a magic wand and separate all 85 miles of sewers, you would, right?

Yeah, you could, yeah.

So, how is that not a problem for the sewer system? Is it just the size of the problem that’s the real problem, or are combined sewers really not an issue in the city’s view?

Well, I think it depends on where you are. So if you have a combined sewer, for example, like in the Locust-Colton area that results into an overflow, meaning that it's going into a stream of water … and that I think creates also problem for water quality issues. That's why that's been addressed first. In talking to the EPA, working with them, this is one thing that we needed to address first because of the number of overflows into bodies of water.

As far as the other combined sewers, it depends. As it was stated on Monday, the solutions can be more complex than it seems. It seems like a simple thing: “Oh, let's just separate them.” But no, because if you're in the downtown area, you might still get some water, because of the water runoff. That's why I think it's gonna take a combination of solutions to try to address that. Trust me, I've learned more about sewers in the past month than I ever thought I would.

You’ve heard three different presentations in recent weeks from city staff on what options you might have for accelerating sewer work. Locust-Colton, for example, is the big one right now. What other information are you looking for before it's decision time?

One of the things we're looking for is really trying to understand what happened in that storm event in June. From what I understand, it's just not a one size fits all. So we need to understand, where did things happen? What particular neighborhood? Where is it? Is it one house? Is it two houses? Is it three? Is it a collection of 10, 15? Then you also have the downtown area that you have to look at.

But also looking at the places where things worked fairly well. On the east side, with newer neighborhood neighborhoods with detention basins … but also it related to the construction, how things were constructed? Drainage tiles around houses and things like that.

I'm sure there's myriad others, but I'm looking forward to hearing from the staff about, “Here is what happened. Here’s the information that we have about some of the issues. And then here are some of the possible solutions that we are thinking of.” And again, this is just a preliminary … this is just staff being able to take a look at that on a surface level. But I'm pretty sure, once you start to get into engineering and other things, it gets even a little bit more complex about how to fix those kinds of things.

So I think at that point, then we can have the conversations about how to fix things. And that will take a little longer, in my opinion, because you then have to look at designs, how do you speed up the process, and how much money does it take, the financing that comes with it?

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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