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Albert Lea supports bill that includes clean water funding

The city of Albert Lea supports a bill that would include $128 million in clean water infrastructure funding for cities.

According to a Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities press release, the bill, authored by Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, and Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, aims to keep with a growing demand for state funding to help cities offset costs to upgrade and rebuild water treatment plants and other clean water infrastructure. The bill has been introduced in the Legislature.

The legislation would provide $128 million in general appropriation bonds to the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority for water infrastructure grant and loan programs available to cities.

Albert Lea City Engineer Steven Jahnke said funding would help pay for millions in dollars in proposed upgrades at the city’s wastewater treatment plant based on proposed phosphorus limits set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“As a city, we definitely support the bill,” he said.

Jahnke said the city will face similar water infrastructure needs as Austin, Marshall and Mountain Lake, cities that hoped to receive funding through the 2018 bonding bill.

The coalition noted last year’s bonding bill included $59 million for PFA programs, but a group of nine environmental groups initiated a lawsuit against the state to challenge the funding mechanism used in the bill.

“As a result of the lawsuit, money that many cities were anticipating is now in limbo,” the coalition states in the release.

The coalition said more than 300 cities in the state have water infrastructure projects in the works.

“According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, more than $5 billion is needed over the next 20 years for water and wastewater infrastructure,” the release states.   

Jahnke said smaller cities cannot solely bear the burden for water infrastructure improvements without outside funding. He predicted having taxpayers bear the cost burden would drive industries away or keep them from coming to affected communities.

The city supports an in-progress lawsuit filed by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities against the MPCA regarding the phosphorus limits.

“The city supports clean water and wants clean water,” Jahnke said. “We just want to make sure that it is done in a fair and equitable way that does not limit the ability of the community to grow in the future.”

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she supports the initiative, adding the Republican-led Legislature placed more than $123 million into the PFA last year.

She supported the use of bonding dollars to help fund water infrastructure improvements. She noted this year is not a bonding year and expects this to be addressed either this year or in 2020.

“This is an appropriate use of bonding,” she said. 

Bennett said she was unsure whether the entire request would be funded.

“It’s always kind of a tightrope to walk there on trying to whittle it down to a decent amount of money but trying to meet the needs of so many different projects and so-on throughout the state,” she said.

Bennett said while on a bonding tour last year in southeast Minnesota, she was informed one community with 2,000 residents needed $30 million to upgrade its sewer and water system.

“You can’t raise taxes enough to do it,” she said.

Bennett expressed concern the MPCA was becoming “a de-facto taxing authority” by levying the upgrades. She said the state is going to have to evaluate whether to have bonding dollars be entirely dedicated to water infrastructure projects or re-evaluate the new standards.

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said it is important to receive the bonding dollars. He noted the cities of Austin and Wells have water infrastructure projects, and Austin and Albert Lea are two of the initial communities whose wastewater treatment plant licenses expire.

“We have more at stake here in southern Minnesota,” Sparks said.

According to the coalition, the money is needed to keep up with increasing demand for PFA grants and loans and to cover the amount indefinitely held up due to the lawsuit.

“Cities are the front line of protecting our lakes and rivers from pollution and making sure residents have clean water,” said coalition President Ron Johnson, a Bemidji city councilor. “We are proud to play a role preserving Minnesota’s clean water legacy, but cities simply don’t have the resources to make the necessary improvements to their water facilities without assistance from the state.

“We’re thankful that Sen. Dahms and Rep. Poppe are stepping up to the plate to address the dire need for more funding for water infrastructure. Cities across the state — and especially in Greater Minnesota — will benefit from this legislation.”

According to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the funding is “especially critical this year as several cities have been forced to put important projects on hold after funding approved by the Legislature in 2018 hit a major snag.”

According to the release, the city of Little Falls was slated to receive a $7 million grant to upgrade its treatment plant to reduce pollutants in wastewater that flows into the Mississippi River. Mayor Greg Zylka estimated without the state grant, the $22 million project would “fall on city residents and businesses.”

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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