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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Commissioner Bob Rolfe of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Seven Southeast Tennessee communities got a portion of more than $27.6 million in Community Development Block Grant funding for infrastructure updates that include new water lines and system updates, sewer system improvements, housing rehabilitation and fire protection.

For the Chattanooga region's rural recipients, the funding addresses some longtime needs, according to officials.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe recently approved the grants for 66 counties, according to a news release.

"These funds play an important role in helping communities across Tennessee prepare for future economic development opportunities and continued growth," Lee said in the release. "I applaud each community for investing in themselves and taking the necessary steps to improve their assets, infrastructure and safety initiatives."

"Community Development Block Grants are an enormous asset to communities across the state and Tennessee as a whole," Rolfe said in the release.

In the seven communities in Southeast Tennessee, the block grants total almost $4 million.

Most block grants require a local funding match ranging from 12-18%, depending on criteria related to the level of distress in a community, said Beth Jones, executive director of the Southeast Tennessee Development District. The district assisted with all seven grants awarded in the region. Grant funding for a housing rehabilitation project in Gruetli-Laager will require no local match.

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Athens Utility Board general manager Eric Newberry said the $630,000 grant will pay for renovations to pump stations that are 40 years old or more.

"Our grant proposal centered around two large pump station renovations, the Cedar Springs pump station (1960s) and the Stirling Road pump station (1970s)," Newberry said by email. "As you can see from the dates, we have maintained and used these facilities well beyond their intended design life."

Newberry said the grant will go toward the roughly $2.5 million project cost for renovations.

"Of that $630,000, $500,000 is grant money that helps AUB maintain lower rates for our wastewater customers while enabling us to invest capital into these systems," he said.

AUB serves more than 13,000 municipal water customers in the city and McMinn County.

Officials in the towns of Benton in Polk County and Gruetli-Laager in Grundy County couldn't be reached for comment. According to grant information supplied by Jones, Benton's $630,000 grant will pay for water system improvements to address water loss while Gruetli-Laager's $414,880 will be used for housing rehabilitation.

Niota, another town in McMinn County, also got a $630,000 grant that Mayor Lois Preece said will be used on aging sewer system infrastructure.

"We're going to put in new aerators at the sewer plant," Preece said. "Our plant is over 40 years old, and this is the first time they've been replaced."

Niota is under state order to update the aerators, Preece said.

"We'll also work on our lines and manholes," she said, adding that town officials are working to determine locations for that work in an effort already funded by a planning grant.

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Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley said the county's $420,000 grant will update the county and city of Pikeville fire departments.

"We've got eight county fire departments and one city fire department that will be splitting that money, and they can buy turnout gear, [Scott] Air-Paks and radio equipment," Ridley said. All nine fire departments have similar needs due to aging equipment, he said.

McMinn County got $630,000 in grant money that will be spent on water system improvements in the south end of the county, county Mayor John Gentry said.

"It's on county roads 38, 50 and 51 in the Riceville area," Gentry said. "Not only is it providing potable water to that very rural area, but it's also strengthening that Riceville Utility District system by providing some redundant feeds."

Gentry said supplying water to the county's more remote areas has always been a "super priority" for the county commission.

"Any of those systems that are willing to spread their municipal water supply through our rural areas we participate with, and we pay the match for those utilities," Gentry said. He noted the Southeast Tennessee Development District was important to acquiring the grant.

Gentry said 34 households — all testing positive for presence of E.coli — have already signed up for service out of 41 households with wells that the utility district sampled.

Rhea County Executive George Thacker said the county's $630,000 grant will be used in the Watts Bar Utility District in the north end of the county.

Watts Bar Utility District general manager Mickey Barger said the improvements will benefit all the utility's customers.

"This will be for a new clear well at the water plant," Barger said. "That's where your finished water has to go into from the plant."

The plant's old clear well will be refurbished after the new one is installed, eventually providing two clear wells for the system, he said.

The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered in Tennessee by the Department of Economic and Community Development, according to grant officials. Allocation of block grant funds is based on priorities set through a public meeting process at the community level.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee vows 'total clarity' on how controversial $4 million grant awards are made)

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

SOUTHEAST TENNESSEE GRANT RECIPIENTS

The following Southeast Tennessee communities were awarded Community Development Block Grants this week to fund infrastructure improvements.

Athens

Sewer System Improvements

$630,000

Benton

Water System Improvements

$630,000

Bledsoe County

Fire Protection Improvements

$420,000

Gruetli-Laager

Housing Rehabilitation

$414,880

McMinn County

Water Line Extension

$630,000

Niota

Sewer System Improvements

$630,000

Rhea County

Water System Improvements

$630,000

TOTAL: $3,984,880

Source: Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

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