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Greater Minnesota cities want public works funding

ST. PAUL — Chloride seeping from the Morris sewage treatment facility into the Pomme De Terre River will require a new facility to meet pollution-reduction requirements.

A nearly $17 million bid for the new facility fell through after Minnesota legislators failed to agree on a 2016 public works bill that would have helped fund the project. Today, the west central Minnesota city faces an $18 million price tag on the project, and City Manager Blaine Hill said a new bid opening in February could increase the costs again.

Morris is one example of a greater Minnesota community waiting on the the state to sell bonds to help fund water treatment projects.

Bradley Peterson, senior lobbyist with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said the organization identified similar water infrastructure needs in Breckenridge, Detroit Lakes, Pipestone and communities on the Iron Range, where treatment is needed to lower mercury levels.

Peterson said the coalition plans to promote legislation this session that will change language to allow for the state to pay for a greater dollar amount and total percentage on projects such as the new facility in Morris. Caps on bonding funds for the project meant the city would receive $12 million from the state to cover an $18 million project.

City officials from throughout greater Minnesota say their residents cannot afford to foot the bill for such projects.

Gov. Mark Dayton is putting an emphasis on improving Minnesota's water this year.

He said this week that price tags for water projects are rising because the Legislature failed to pass a public works bill last year. On Wednesday, he offered his suggestion for a $1.5 billion measure to fund projects ranging from fixing state buildings to helping local communities pay for water projects.

Republicans have not committed to a bonding bill this year, although say they are open to discussing one.

Although similar legislation the coalition pushed last session fell through when the bonding bill died, Peterson said that he is optimistic about about the "popular concept" in this year's session.

Many rural water projects are in areas represented by Republicans who hold House and Senate majorities.

"The concepts were in the bonding bill from last year, and folks buy into them already," Peterson said, adding that the need for water infrastructure "really is all across the state and $167 million does not complete all the projects, but it does knock quite a few off the list."

In Morris, Hill said that without state funding homeowners could face special assessments of about $15,000 per household on top of increased water rates.

"If we don't get help, our rates double. If we do get help we may be able to find the solution to cleaning up the river," Hill said. "When it comes to a bonding bill, it really cannot wait."

In Moorhead, where water infrastructure ranks as a lower priority than Morris, challenges primarily center on keeping pace with pollution regulations.

"We do need to make some updates to our existing water treatment plant," said Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead. "We are looking at some improvements to the wastewater facility and I think the big thing is making sure we can do those projects in conjunction with (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) requirements for nitrates and phosphates."

Lien said he hopes Moorhead is given adequate funding to make updates in time.

"If the state's not able to help out with some of the additional costs or the state comes down with some standards after the city does some of the regular improvements, that will fall onto the taxpayers in Moorhead," he said. "That's something I personally don't want to see.

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