What would you do with $150 million?

January 8th, 2019

What could you do with $150 million? If you’re Angie Mettlen, WK Dickson’s Director of Strategic Funding and Regulatory Affairs, you know that $150 million will pay for a whole lot of utility infrastructure improvements that can make a big impact on people and their local communities. Angie works daily to help WK Dickson’s clients discover and uncover sources of funding that can be crucial to their efforts to maintain and improve their infrastructure. We recently sat down with Angie to ask her about her work and how it benefits our clients.

The funding landscape is constantly changing. How do you stay current with your knowledge of what’s out there?

As an engineering professional, it’s always important to maintain your industry knowledge; it’s no different with funding. At WK Dickson, we use a variety of strategies to stay informed including training classes and conferences, staying in touch with the different funding organizations making sure we’re on their email lists and attending their workshops, etc. It’s also extremely important to build a relationship with staff at the funding agencies so you have an established resource you can call on when questions arise, or if you are presented with a unique challenge. As the funding landscape becomes more and more competitive, it’s crucial to be proactive in learning new programs, especially the smaller, niche or specialized programs which, if bundled with other programs, can be quite advantageous. Also, through my 27 years in the industry and technical understanding, I know what questions to ask our clients that can lead to putting the best projects forward and result in funding success.

One of the things that’s unique to WK Dickson is that our team often makes a special effort to bring me in on a project early during the scoping stage to evaluate opportunities for funding. For example, a recent discussion with Spartanburg Water regarding some very specific project issues led to an award of a $500,000 grant by the SC Rural Infrastructure Authority. By having an in depth understanding of the funding agencies and programs, we can help our clients frame their applications to best fit the goals of the funding agency.

What do you think has been the biggest trend in funding recently?

The biggest trend over the last few years has been, even though there most likely will always be some level of grant funding, is that there is less grant money in comparison with the amount of funding utilities will need have to maintain and/or improve their infrastructure. Communities are required to become more proactive and self-reliant. This is where having a good asset management program will be critical.

There’s obviously a link between utility infrastructure funding, ability to pay, and utility rates. What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding in how these issues are interrelated?

The biggest misunderstanding is the education effort needed to the inform customers of how these issues are interrelated. People typically have little understanding of how much it really costs to treat, pump, and convey water and wastewater. The good news is that there have been improvements with education efforts, especially with the efforts of organizations such as AWWA and WEF and many local utilities, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. A common comparison tends to be what people are willing to pay for cell phones, internet or cable access versus how much they are willing to pay for water and sewer (which is typically a fraction of what these other things cost, but we all know that water is a basic human need). It really is an issue of adequately conveying the value of water to the average person.

It’s important to make sure we’re conveying that a lot of the infrastructure in the southeast is nearing the end of its useful life, and we will need to be prepared to deal with how we’re going to pay for these much-needed improvements. Without these improvements, our quality of life, health, and economic development will suffer.

You’ve helped WK Dickson clients receive over $150 million in funding for projects over the past decade. Do you have a favorite/most rewarding project? Is there a project that stands out in your mind?

Helping communities fund their infrastructure projects and see those projects come to fruition has been exceptionally rewarding. However, if I was to name a favorite, it would have to be the Elizabethtown Farmers Market. The project involved two local anchor businesses that would be open year-round (a bakery and a deli) and ended up being a tremendous success and game changer for the Town of Elizabethtown. Revenue generated by the farmer’s market even covers the operation and maintenance of the market facility for the town. WK Dickson helped secure over $1,7000,000 for the project. Elizabethtown contributed less than $11,000 in local funds and only about $400,000 in loan funds were needed.

The project highlights how our clients work hand in hand with us to tackle challenging community infrastructure project. This one ended up restoring a family grocery store that had a long history with the town and using it to help revitalize their downtown area.

What would you say is the #1 thing utility managers could do to help fund their utility infrastructure?

If they don’t currently have a Capital Improvement fund, they need to begin one. And then actively work to fund it. It all goes back to the rates with the first step being an evaluation of their rates and using those rates to plan for annual operation and maintenance and big ticket expenditures (which will be needed as water/sewer infrastructure ages). The next step would be to build a comprehensive asset management network and prioritize needed improvements. Until you know what assets you have and assess them, you are managing your systems reactively, not proactively. This, in turn, presents funding challenges when you have to ‘react’ to a major capital need.

Just recently we worked with the town of Fair Bluff, SC on an asset inventory project that helped them identify and assess their utility network so they could effectively prioritize critically needed system improvements. This was especially important after they incurred damage to their system from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. As a result, they have improved their financial health and sustainability of the town and its utility systems.

People who know you, know you’re a big Clemson fan. What’s your prediction for the national championship game on Jan. 7.

Well, I predicted that it would be Clemson – Alabama, Part IV and that is just what will take place on January 7. I was fortunate to attend the Cotton Bowl for the Clemson’s play-off game and can say that I think the Tigers are ready for the Tide this year. I think it will be another ‘classic’ game between these two teams, but I am picking my Tigers to win it all! Update: Looks like Angie's powers of prediction are correct, and Clemson emerged victorious.

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