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Renville County and Bird Island remain at odds over ditch issue

OLIVIA -- The Renville County Board of Commissioners decided not to act on a petition by the city of Bird Island to remove itself from the County Ditch 66 system and instead pay an annual, fixed outlet fee.

The decision came after the commissioners met Tuesday with three viewers -- the "disinterested residents" required under state statute with determining the benefits of a drainage system.

The commissioners had appeared willing to approve the petition to remove the city from the system, but the commissioners and city are at odds over what the annual outlet fee should be.

The city of Bird Island said it would not pay an annual fee greater than $2,500.

Three of the four commissioners present at Tuesday's meeting said they favored the $7,000 fee as recommended by the three viewers asked to look at the issue.

Their recommendation was based on nine years of maintenance records for the system, and what Bird Island's share of those costs were based on the benefits currently assigned it, according to Ron Ringquist, one of the viewers.

Their calculations indicated that Bird Island's share of maintenance costs as part of the system would likely range annually from $2,500 to $16,000. He acknowledged the difficulty of assigning a fixed outlet fee since it places all parties in the system at some risk.

He called the $7,000 recommendation their best attempt at finding the "middle ground.''

"We were as fair as we could be with the risks to both sides,'' Ringquist said.

Bird Island had petitioned for removal after completing extensive work on tile and storm sewer lines in a 13-block area, or roughly one-half of the city. Grant funds made it possible to complete the improvements at no cost to the ditch system.

The city also argued that its work to improve its storm and sanitary sewer systems has greatly reduced the volume of water it discharges into the system.

If the status quo remains in effect, the other members of the ditch system would be obligated to share in the costs when work is done to improve the drainage in the remaining 13-block area of the community. That work is not currently scheduled, but most believe it is only a matter of time before it needs to be undertaken.

Conversely, the status quo also puts the city of Bird Island at the risk of having to share in the unknown costs for maintenance work that will be required downstream of the community. Most of the system is 100 years old, with the exception of a diversion channel built in recent years around the city of Olivia. The commissioners noted that the prospects for major repairs sometime in the future in either Bird Island or downstream are roughly the same. "Where will the earthquake strike first,'' asked Commissioner Ralph Novotny, of Hector.

Novotny and Commissioners Bob Fox of Franklin and John Stahl of Olivia said they favored the viewers' recommended $7,000 fee. Novotny said they had no good reason to support a lower number, and that rejecting the recommendation was like "spitting in the face of the experts.''

Commissioner and board chairman Paul Setzepfandt of Bird Island supported the $2,500 fee.

There was also discussion about basing Bird Island's outlet fee according to the outlet fee assessed the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative for discharging a far greater volume of water into County Ditch 45.

The viewers cautioned against such an attempt. No ditch systems are alike in terms of the value of benefits, area drained, size or costs, and making those kinds of comparisons are inherently suspect, according to information provided by Ringquist.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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