GOSHEN — After buying their own vacuum truck to clean storm drains, the county highway department is finding catch basins they never knew existed.

At the Elkhart County Stormwater Board meeting this week, county Administrator Jeff Taylor presented the highway department’s request for a share of the board’s budget. The nearly $490,000 request includes operating costs for a vacuum truck purchased earlier this year, such as the manpower needed to run it and the supplies to keep it running.

He said about $200,000 out of the 2020 budget request would go toward vacuum truck operation as well as excavations for storm sewers and jetting for clogged sewer lines. 

“We’ve got a bunch of storm sewer lines down in New Paris, for example, where there’s something not functioning and we need to figure out why,” Taylor said Monday. “They went down to New Paris and cleaned out a catch basin that was completely full of debris. I mean completely full, to the top. We found an outlet, now we need to figure out where the outlet goes. It takes a lot of time and energy, but now that they have the equipment, they can do that.”

Responding to a clogged catch basin was a much harder task before, he said, when they had to find a contractor who was able and willing to do it.

“The contractor may or may not be interested in the job,” he said. “If he or she is interested, they can charge pretty much whatever they want to, because that industry right now has about all the work it needs.”

Taylor brought the vehicle request to the board in December, contrasting the one-time $426,000 purchase with the yearly cost of over $230,000 to contract storm drain cleaning. The county sold off its own vacuum truck when downsizing the highway department several years ago.

Having their own vehicle again allows highway crews to start tackling a large backlog of work, outside of the time, place and price constraints of a contract, Taylor said. The crew is able to respond to clogged drains whenever they have time, and as they come across ones they didn’t know about before, they add it to a map and a cleaning schedule.

They expect to find hundreds of unmapped drains that the county is responsible for, many of them built in subdivisions. Taylor said having as-built drawings, which would reflect changes made in the field during construction, would help keep the county out of the dark about the infrastructure.

Board member Phil Barker, the county surveyor, said it might be a good idea to pass an ordinance requiring developers to provide as-built drawings. 

Taylor said street sweeping is another example of upkeep the county currently contracts out, but he said it might make more sense for the county to buy its own machine. Keeping streets clean would also prevent catch basins from getting clogged in the first place.

He gave a rough estimate of $325,000 for the vehicle but said it probably wouldn’t need extra manpower. Board members indicated a willingness to fund the purchase either this year or next year.

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