By Joe Capozzi

Hoping to tap grant dollars available due to the coronavirus pandemic, Manalapan commissioners are trying to get a head start on an ambitious project they believe is inevitable — replacing the town’s septic tanks with a municipal sewer system. 
“It’s going to happen and we already have word coming down” from state agencies “that sooner or later all barrier islands will be forced to make that transition. We want to do it before we are being forced to. We want to control our investment,’’ Mayor Keith Waters said. 
What kind of system, how much it will cost and who will pay for it won’t be known until the engineering firm Mock Roos completes an analysis of all options. 
The report is due by Jan. 23 at the latest, according to a $93,350 consulting services agreement approved by the Town Commission on July 23.
The town started seriously considering the project two years ago before deferring those discussions. 
“Now with COVID, suddenly there are all these piles of money out there for infrastructure, so we are trying to capitalize on that,’’ Waters said in an interview after the July meeting. “We’ve never really taken it to this point.’’ 
The costs will depend on what type of sewer system the commissioners choose and whether they include moving or adding other utilities — such as power lines, fiber-optic cables, natural gas pipes, stormwater drains — underground while the streets are torn up.
Construction alone could take four years and require tearing up every street in town at one time or another.
“The preference is to do everything at one time if possible. It’s just a matter of finding the money to do it,’’ Waters said. 
Waters said he’d like to avoid a special assessment on residents. Some portion of it could be paid for with property taxes. But the hope is to cover most if not all of the costs with state or federal money. 
Mock Roos will consider three collection systems: gravity, vacuum and low pressure.
“It’s likely the low pressure system is gonna be the right system for the town,’’ John Cairnes, a senior project engineer for Mock Roos, told commissioners. “The low pressure system gives you the ability to have people connect later on. You put the main trunk in the road and people can connect to it whenever they need to.’’
The firm’s final report will guide the town as it applies for grants.
“We will get the funding to make this happen. But it’s going to be a process and the biggest process is looking at the overall cost and choosing the right system,’’ Waters said. 
The report “allows us to go and start making the formal requests that we are not able to right now.’’
In other business:
• Commissioners approved a tentative tax rate of $3.17 per $1,000 of taxable value, the same as the current one, for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Budget hearings will be held Sept. 17 and Sept. 28. 
“I like the thought of keeping the millage rate exactly where it is, maybe a little bit lower. We may even contemplate taking that down just a touch,’’ Waters said at a budget workshop July 22. 
The town’s taxable value increased 7.2% to just under $1.5 billion ($1,493,978,117), according to the latest estimates from the Palm Beach County property appraiser. 
• Town Manager Linda Stumpf said negotiations on a police contract are at an impasse and will be referred to a special master. The union objected to the town’s coronavirus policy. “They felt it was prohibitive when cases were going down, which is not the case,’’ she said.

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