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City makes its pitch for state grant funding for treatment plant

WILLMAR -- Willmar Mayor Les Heitke made a pitch Wednesday afternoon for a multimillion-dollar state appropriation to help the city pay for the new $86.2 million wastewater treatment plant and conveyance system.

"The city of Willmar is requesting $20 million in state funding to go toward the $86.2 million (project), the-reby reducing the future fin-ancial burden placed on Willmar's ratepayers,'' Heitke told members of the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee.

He said the new plant will replace failed technology at the existing 70-year-old plant, will reduce phosphorus loading in the Minnesota River Basin by 90 percent and will comply with more stringent ammonia requirements to improve water quality. Heitke described the project as the largest municipal project in the city's history.

The committee was in Willmar as part of a three-day tour to receive funding requests for infrastructure and capital projects in cities around the state. The committee will debate which projects may eventually be included in the 2010 state bonding bill.

Willmar's request must overcome a technicality, as pointed out by a committee member, which is that state bonding rules require a project not to have been started at all before it is funded.

Heitke said Willmar's project is about 50 percent complete.

"It's one of the technicalities of state bonding,'' said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the House Capital Investment Committee.

"It doesn't mean we don't support the project and don't understand the challenge to the local community, the size, the sheer scope of the project. It's the bond houses in New York City. It's not just the Legislature that makes the decisions.''

For example, she said, even if a contract has been let for the entire project, that's really considered starting the project, "so we can't carve out one piece of it. Obviously, they'll have to be in contact with our Office of Management and Budget at the state level.''

Hausman, in a brief interview with the Tribune, said it's just a problem to be worked out. She noted that City Administrator Michael Schmit had said the city has other project-related activities for which the city has not yet approved contracts.

"Maybe it would be possible to carve out those pieces that have not let a contract and have that be the state share,'' she said.

One "carve-out'' might be the contract for decommissioning the existing wastewater treatment plant after the new plant begins operation. No contract has yet been approved for the estimated $3.3 million project, said Rhonda Rae, program manager at the Willmar office of Donohue and Associates.

Contracts for nine other segments, such as construction of the treatment plant, force mains, interceptor and pump stations, have been approved.

There's also the possibility that any state bond funds could be used for two future projects: the western interceptor, estimated at $4 million, and improvement of the Lakeland Drive interceptor, estimated at $2.5 million. Both are related to the wastewater project, according to Schmit.

The western interceptor, located west of Foot Lake and County Road 5, will convey wastewater from the new industrial park and from growth in the northeast portion of the service area.

The Lakeland Drive interceptor would be improved to handle peak flow from the MinnWest Technology Campus and other development to the north. Schmit said the Lakeland Drive interceptor has been insufficient for probably 10 years.

"Clearly it's a little bit of a complexity and unfortunately it's not always understood at the start of a project, but we'll have to see if there's something we can work out,'' Hausman said. "There's no lack of support for the project, just technicalities.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150