Columbia officials were prepared to spend $5 million earlier this year to install some new water pipes in Northeast Richland.
But when the bids came back from 10 contractors - twice more than usual - the low bid was for $3 million, 40 percent under budget.
"Contractors are hungry," City Engineer Joey Jaco said. "The housing market is down right now, so a lot of contractors are looking for work."
City Council members sense an opportunity. They are not scheduled to borrow the next round of money for water and sewage improvements until June. But with project bids coming in so low, council members voted unanimously Wednesday to borrow $105 million now.
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"Raw materials are getting cheaper because stuff is not getting built," said Brent Robertson, Columbia's financial advisor. "It's a good idea."
City officials borrowed $80 million earlier this year for water and sewage improvements, but the money was spent quickly on two massive upgrades to the city's water and wastewater treatment plants.
The new money is to be spent to replace or repair several sewage pumps, install a 45-inch sewage pipe to help increase the capacity to the wastewater treatment plant and replace and repair several water and sewage pipes.
Council members referred to it as "our local stimulus package," noting that the money would put contractors and architects to work.
"It's a jobs program in the city of Columbia," Councilman Kirkman Finlay said.
But it will also help to relieve some of the pressure the city has been under from the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Several water and sewage spills recently, including one during Thanksgiving week that took city officials hours to fix after they were notified, has caught the attention of government regulators.
Those spills have added to scrutiny of the city after the EPA and DHEC raided the city's wastewater treatment plant last year, accusing some workers and contractors of falsifying water treatment data.
"We are expected to complete some of these projects that we've had waiting," Jaco said. "Getting this additional $100 million will help us in being able to get some of these engineering projects out and get some of these construction projects out."