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Environment

News Advisory
Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities
Contact: Julie Liew
jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
651-259-1917

As cities across Minnesota face billions of dollars in wastewater infrastructure costs, rural communities simply cannot afford to upgrade or rebuild aging facilities without additional financial assistance from the state

Who:  Kelly Rasche, Lakefield city clerk; Chad Adams, Albert Lea city manager; Mark Larson, Glencoe city administrator; Bradley Peterson, CGMC executive director, and other Greater Minnesota city leaders

What:  Press conference about the need for a bonding bill that addresses wastewater infrastructure costs in Greater Minnesota

When:  1:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Where: Press Conference Room B971, Minnesota State Capitol

For Immediate Release
Feb. 26, 2018
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
PDF version

Water infrastructure funding bill bolstered by strong bipartisan support
Bill would allocate $167M to state grant & loans programs that help cities pay for critical water infrastructure projects

ST. PAUL—City leaders in Greater Minnesota are lauding legislation introduced today that would boost state funding for grant and loan programs that help cities pay for expensive wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects.

The bill, SF 2668/HF 3122, spearheaded by chief authors Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) and Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City), allocates $167 million in state bonding for three key grant and loan programs administered by the Public Facilities Authority (PFA). The proposal has broad bipartisan support, with a wide mix of legislators from both parties and from every corner of the state signed on as co-authors of the legislation. Gov. Mark Dayton has also shown support for the plan by including it in his bonding proposal and touting it again at a Governor’s press conference last week.

“We’re really thankful to have a strong, bipartisan group of lawmakers come together to support legislation that provides funding for water infrastructure,” said Dave Smiglewski, mayor of Granite Falls and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC). “This is a critical need for communities across the state. Every Minnesotan deserves access to clean water, but cities can’t afford to bear the high construction and technology costs alone.”

The CGMC, which is comprised of 96 cities outside the metro area, has determined that funding for the PFA grant and loan programs is its top bonding bill priority this session.

“Cities have no choice but to upgrade their water facilities and fix broken sewer pipes. Unless they get financial help from the state, these costs all fall on local residents and businesses,” Smiglewski said. “When citizens are hit with water bills that have doubled or tripled, it really puts a strain on the whole community.”

Due to the need to replace aging infrastructure and comply with new, stricter water-quality regulations, the number of cities and sanitary sewer districts currently planning to rebuild or upgrade their drinking water or wastewater infrastructure has jumped in recent years. More than 300 cities, the bulk of which are in Greater Minnesota, currently have projects on the PFA’s Project Priority List which identifies potential wastewater, drinking water and storm water projects that are eligible to receive funding through PFA programs. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has estimated that local governments and the state are facing $5 billion in wastewater infrastructure costs over the next 20 years, while the Minnesota Department of Health estimates it will cost an additional $7.4 billion to upgrade and repair drinking water infrastructure over that same time period.

The legislation introduced today, SF 2668/HF 3122, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. However, the House Capital Investment Committee will hold an informational hearing on Wednesday to learn more about the state’s water infrastructure needs and costs. City officials from at least two Greater Minnesota cities, Pipestone and Little Falls, are expected to testify about the specific needs facing their communities.

“We are glad that legislators are listening to our concerns and taking steps toward getting more funding for these important projects,” Smiglewski said. “I hope this spirit of bipartisanship will continue and lead to the passage of a bonding bill this year. These projects and our communities can’t wait.”

For more information on this bonding bill proposal and why it is important to Greater Minnesota communities, please see this CGMC Info Sheet.

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The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 96 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org and follow us on Twitter @greatermncities.

 

For immediate release
Feb. 15, 2018
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
PDF version

Legislature needs to build on progress for Greater Minnesota
LGA, infrastructure, child care among issues that demand attention this session

ST. PAUL—As the Minnesota Legislature prepares to head into session next week, Greater Minnesota city leaders are urging lawmakers to put aside the growing partisan divide and focus on the “bread and butter” issues that keep communities across the state healthy.

“The Legislature has a strong opportunity to address key issues like Local Government Aid funding, infrastructure repairs and the child care shortage. The greatest danger this session is that legislators will squander this moment of economic strength in our state,” said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), during a pre-session conference call with statewide media this morning.

“Legislators have a prime opportunity to build on progress made over the last couple of sessions. They can’t let partisanship or the distraction of the upcoming elections stand in the way of getting work done,” he said.

David Smiglewski, mayor of Granite Falls and president of the CGMC, added, “As city leaders and as Minnesotans, we have to demand that they stay focused, buckle down and do their jobs.”

Tax bill talks must include LGA

Leading into the session, legislators have been vocal about the need for tax bill to address issues that have sprung up due to the recent federal tax overhaul. Peterson said this focus on taxes creates an opportunity for the Legislature to address Greater Minnesota cities’ needs by passing an increase in Local Government Aid (LGA). The CGMC is seeking a permanent $30.5 million increase, the amount needed to bring LGA back to its 2002 high-water mark.

“If legislators are serious about passing a tax bill, it must include LGA,” Peterson said.

Ron Johnson has served for 18 years on the city council of Bemidji, a growing community for which LGA is particularly important because nearly half of property in the city is tax-exempt. He has seen LGA funding ebb and flow through the years and says it has a direct impact on the health of his community.

“Our city is prudent — we squeeze extra mileage out of our vehicles and try to be mindful about the amount our residents pay in fees and taxes — but we have necessary expenses. Nothing costs the same as it did in 2002 when there was more LGA to go around,” Johnson said.

The 2017 Legislature passed a modest $15 million LGA increase, which Bemidji used to hold down its property tax levy. Other communities used the extra funds on needs like fire equipment or park improvements, while numerous cities found that higher employee health insurance costs more than ate up any LGA increase.

If the Legislature passes the desired $30.5 million increase, Johnson said his city has discussed hiring a community development director — a position eliminated due to LGA cuts in the mid-2000s — to help take advantage of opportunities for economic growth. For Granite Falls, Smiglewski said an LGA increase would likely be used to replace outdated equipment.

“We have a list of needs a mile long — and we’re not talking about $100,000 waterfalls here,” Smiglewski said.

Costly water infrastructure upgrades can’t wait

Due to aging infrastructure and new water quality regulations, hundreds of cities in Greater Minnesota are currently faced with having to invest millions in expensive upgrades to their wastewater and drinking water facilities. The CGMC is requesting $167 million in bonding for state grant and loan programs that help cities meet these astronomical costs.

Little Falls is among the cities relying on a bonding bill to pass this year. The city needs to renovate its wastewater treatment plant, a project estimated to cost more than $17 million. It is currently on the list to receive a $7 million grant through the state’s Point Source Implementation Grant Program, but that money will only come into fruition if the program is funded in the bonding bill.

“If we don’t receive grant funding, our rates will nearly triple,” said City Administrator Jon Radermacher. “We have no choice but to upgrade our plant, so this funding is absolutely critical. There is no question Little Falls and other cities in our position need the Legislature to pass a bonding bill with substantial funding for water infrastructure.”

Budget constraints force cities to take a slow path on street repairs

Another infrastructure concern that has dogged cities for years is the struggle to keep up with street repairs and maintenance. The CGMC is seeking $50 million for city streets, divided equally between cities with populations greater than 5,000 and those under 5,000.

The city of Granite Falls has identified at least 27 city blocks that need be rebuilt or overlayed, a list that grows each year. Due to budget constraints, the city plans to fix only six blocks in 2018, which is estimated to cost $927,000. In contrast, the city received only $24,635 in city-street funding through the Small Cities Assistance Program, which the 2017 Legislature funded at $8 million over two years.

“Our ‘to-do list’ is long and what can actually afford to do is surprisingly short,” Smiglewski said. “We can only do a block or two here, a block or two there. It’s not very efficient.”

Cities with populations over 5,000 receive some funding through the Municipal State Aid Street (MSAS) system, but Johnson says larger cities — particularly regional centers like Bemidji, whose daytime population nearly doubles — need more resources.

“At our rate, we aren’t keeping up,” Johnson said, noting that his city is able to budget for about one mile of street repairs a year. “We try to repair the worst, but we should be doing much more.”

Child care shortage needs attention

In addition to advocating for funding for LGA and infrastructure, the CGMC also wants legislators to pay closer attention to the growing child care shortage in Greater Minnesota. For many communities, the lack of child care has become a serious barrier to economic growth.

As a father of a 3-year-old with another child on the way, Radermacher has first-hand knowledge of the problem. When he was offered the city administrator job a couple years ago, he said the “very first question” he asked was if there child care was available in Little Falls. Ultimately, he had to live away from his wife and child for three months until they were able to obtain child care in the city.

According to a needs assessment performed by First Children’s Finance, Little Falls currently has a need for 144 more child care spots, a number that jumps to 475 when counting the adjoining zip codes. Other cities in Greater Minnesota have reported similar deficits.

“We are on the cusp of a real critical issue here,” Radermacher said. “I know people who won’t take a job because they can’t find child care. Businesses want to come here or expand, but it’s hard to do that when the workforce has child care needs.”

The CGMC is supporting legislation that provides funding to the state’s initiative foundations to encourage more in-home child care providers. It also hopes the Legislature will further explore the causes of the shortage and review whether there are any onerous or unnecessary regulations that may be preventing people from entering into the child care businesses.

“The child care shortage is a complex issue and it’s not going to be solved in one session,” Peterson said. “Legislators need to know that this is not just a family issue, it’s also an economic development issue.”

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The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 96 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org and follow us on Twitter @greatermncities.

 

The MPCA has opened the Draft Impaired Waters list for comment. Every two years, the MPCA updates this list which identifies the waters that do not meet Minnesota’s water quality standards. The list guides where the MPCA will be developing Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plans. If your wastewater facility discharges upstream of an impaired water, this increases the likelihood that a limit that addresses the impairment could be placed in your permit.

You can find the draft list and instructions on how to comment here. We encourage all cities to work with your wastewater operators and engineers to review the list and determine whether you are discharging into an impaired water. If you believe the impairment listing is erroneous, you may want to work with your engineer or operator to submit comments. Because these determinations are unique to each water body, the CGMC will not be submitting comments on this list.

If you have any questions on this issue, please contact Elizabeth Wefel at eawefel@flaherty-hood.com.

Thank you to everyone who attended the CGMC Fall Conference last week at Arrowwood Resort & Conference Center. More than 100 city leaders representing 50 cities attended the conference — a record attendance!

The conference kicked off Thursday afternoon with a presentation by Marnie Werner, acting director of the Center for Rural Policy, on their study titled “A Quiet Crisis: Minnesota’s Child Care Shortage.” You can watch video of her presentation here and read her Power Point presentation here.

After Werner’s presentation, we delved further into the issues surrounding Greater Minnesota’s child care shortage with a panel discussion featuring Nancy Jost, early childhood coordinator for West Central Initiative; Tim Penny, president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation; Jessica Beyer, business development specialist for First Children’s Finance; and Amanda Benda, director of Little Huskies Daycare Center & Preschool in Jackson, Minn. The discussion was moderated by Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. Each panelist provided a unique perspective on the issue and offered suggestions on ways city leaders can be more involved in developing solutions. You can watch the panel discussion here.

Broadband was also an important topic at the conference. Bill Coleman, president of Community Technology Advisors and a consultant for the Blandin Foundation, informed attendees about where broadband access stands in Greater Minnesota and outlined the economic impact of world-class broadband infrastructure. You can watch Coleman’s presentation here and read his Power Point Presentation here.
After Coleman’s presentation, CGMC Executive Director Bradley Peterson moderated a legislative panel discussion featuring Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), Rep. Ben Lien (DFL-Moorhead) and Rep. Jeff Howe (R-Rockville). The panelists discussed the impact of the 2017 legislative session and plans for 2018. The conversation touched on issues such as transportation, bonding and the ongoing lawsuit between the Legislature and Gov. Dayton.

The afternoon was capped by another panel discussion, this one on the role of elected officials in labor and employee relations. Brandon Fitzsimmons, an attorney with Flaherty & Hood, moderated a discussion featuring Waite Park City Administrator Shaunna Johnson, Alexandria City Administrator Marty Schultz and Moorhead City Manager Chris Volkers in which they talked about the “productive” and “unproductive” involvement of elected officials in dealing with unions and personnel issues.

In the evening, attendees enjoyed a cocktail reception and dinner followed by an entertaining and informative quiz show led by the award-winning Theater of Public Policy. During the show, three teams squared off against each other in a battle to see who knew the most about random Greater Minnesota trivia, the history of LGA and other various topics. To the audience’s surprise, Team Lobbyist (Flaherty & Hood lobbyists Tim Flaherty and Marty Seifert) ultimately bested Team Mayor (Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski and Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson) and Team Administrator (Slayton City Administrator Josh Malchow and Virginia City Administration Britt See-Benes) to take the quiz show crown.

In addition to speakers and presentations, the conference also included a membership meeting on Friday morning during which members discussed and adopted the CGMC’s 2018 legislative policy positions. To review the adopted positions, click on the following subject areas: Annexation & Land Use, Economic Development, Environment & Energy, LGA & Property Taxes and Transportation. You can also read more about the top priorities for the upcoming legislative in this CGMC Press Release that was sent to the media at the conclusion of the conference.

Thanks again to everyone who attended our 2017 Fall Conference! Please check out the photo gallery on our Facebook page to see pictures from the conference.

The MPCA began hearings this week on the sulfate water quality standard which will apply to facilities that discharge into “wild rice waters.” Cities located within 25-60 miles upstream of such waters will be evaluated first by the MPCA to determine whether a limit is required. CGMC members on the list include Alexandria, Babbitt, Bagley, Bemidji, Biwabik, Brainerd, Detroit Lakes, Ely, Foley, Hinckley, Hoyt Lakes, Le Sueur (Minnesota River Valley Public Utilities Commission), Plainview, Princeton, Red Wing, Rushford, Sandstone, Staples, Wabasha, Wadena and Winona.
 
Our preliminary analysis demonstrates that future compliance with the sulfate standard could require expensive treatment upgrades such as reverse osmosis, membrane filtration, and/or crystallization and evaporation. These upgrades could cost individual cities $10-$20 million or more, depending upon site-specific information. 
 
We recommend that affected cities participate in the rulemaking process by submitting comments and/or attending a public hearing. Hearings began Oct. 23 in St. Paul, and will be held around the state over the next few weeks. You can find a complete list of hearings here.
 
We are in the process of finalizing our talking points for affected cities and will be circulating those soon. If you would like a copy or have other questions, please email Elizabeth Wefel at eawefel@flaherty-hood.com.

The Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) is responsible for recommending how $45.7 million from the Environmental Trust Fund should be spent. The LCCMR received a total of 217 proposals requesting approximately $183 million in funding, and narrowed it down to 101 projects requesting $120.4 million for proposals to present over the next two weeks.

A number of the projects in the running for funding could benefit Greater Minnesota. Proposal 201-G would provide $3 million for local parks, trails and natural areas grants. These grant programs provide funding to projects that do not qualify for Legacy funds and they are a top priority for the Greater Minnesota Parks and Trails organization to which many CGMC cities belong. 

In another proposal, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is seeking funding for a wastewater treatment plant optimization pilot program (proposal 035-B) that would seek ways to help facilities perform better and meet stricter standards without costly facility upgrades. CGMC cities would be eligible to apply for the pilot if it is funded.

You can review these projects and others selected here (the projects that will present to the LCCMR are marked with an X).

Please consider reaching out to LCCMR members and ask them to support projects that benefit Greater Minnesota, particularly the two mentioned above. You can find the members’ contact information here.

The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) is public body composed of several agency heads, as well as members of the public appointed by the Governor. The EQB provides leadership and coordination on statewide environmental issues including environmental review, state water planning and coordination, and strategic energy and environmental planning. This year, the Legislature expanded the number of citizen slots and specifically designated four for Greater Minnesota, one from each of the rural congressional districts 1,2, 7 and 8.

The posting for these positions will remain open until filled, but the first review of applications will take place Aug. 25. You can learn more here.

With mere hours to go until tonight’s midnight deadline, the Minnesota Legislature is hard at work trying to negotiate and pass a state budget and other key pieces of legislation. At this point it appears we are likely headed for a short special session to complete the state budget.

Legislators were holed up in St. Paul over the weekend and managed to pass a few budget bills out of the House and Senate, including the environment and jobs bills. A number of bills are still on the agenda for today including taxes, transportation and bonding.

Since most of the negotiations have been going on behind closed doors – leaving the public, the media and lobbyists out of the legislative process — we have little indication of what will be included in the final bills.

If you have not done so already, now would be an excellent time to respond to this CGMC Action Alert by contacting your legislators and Gov. Dayton to urge them to include a significant increase in Local Government Aid in the final tax bill.

The environmental bill is one of the few bills that passed on Sunday and is now expected to be signed into law by the Governor. Unfortunately, due to continuing opposition from the Governor and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, many of the significant environmental reforms sought by the CGMC were stripped from the final bill, including our call for independent peer review of proposed rules and a prohibition against the enforcement of unadopted rules. On the plus side, the bill includes our request to extend the public comment period for new city permits to 60 days (up from 30 days) and also includes some policy changes regarding the Impaired Waters List.

As for the jobs bills, which passed early this morning and is also expected to be signed by the Governor, it contains several priorities that are important to rural communities:

  • The Job Training Incentive Program is funded at $2.7 million per biennium for 218-19 and 2020-21
  • The Border-to-Border Broadband Broadband Development Grant Program is funded at $20 million
  • A workforce housing grant program within the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority will receive $4 million per biennium for 2018-19 and 2020-21
  • The Greater Minnesota Business Development Public Infrastructure program (BDPI) gets $1 million for the 2018-19 biennium (excluding a $1.6 million earmark in FY 18) and approximately $3.6 million for the 2020-21 biennium. The BDPI program is funded in the proposed bonding bill as well.
  • The Minnesota Investment Fund is funded at $25 million per biennium for 2018-19 and 2020-21
  • The Job Creation Fund receives $17 million for the 2018-19 biennium and $16 million for the 2020-21 biennium

For updates as this final day of session proceeds, please follow us on Twitter (@greatermncities), Facebook and our website (greatermncities.org.)

Below is a guest column by Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams and Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges, who also serve as co-chairs of the CGMC Environment Committee. As of April 28, it is has been published in the Fargo Forum and the Owatonna People’s Press.

Let us be clear: It’s possible to support regulatory reform and the environment at the same time.

Some interest groups, lawmakers and government officials have tried to paint municipal groups seeking to reform Minnesota’s regulatory process as anti-environment and anti-science, greedy penny-pinchers bought and sold by corporate interests. That picture couldn’t be further from the truth.

In actuality, we are city leaders who represent our communities, as well as dozens of others in Greater Minnesota, and are dedicated to protecting our state’s precious waters. Greater Minnesota cities have invested billions in clean water efforts in the last 30 years, and as practical environmentalists we are deeply troubled by some of the recent actions by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

We are advocating for reasonable regulatory reform not because we want to ignore science — to the contrary, we are doing so because we strongly believe that sound science and public input is vital to an effective clean water regulatory framework.

While numerous environmental reform proposals have been introduced this legislative session, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) has determined three top priorities that will help improve the wastewater permitting process and ensure that our limited financial resources are spent wisely to implement regulations that will provide measurable benefits to water quality.

The first reform local government officials are seeking is the ability to request an independent scientific review of MPCA’s application of science through wastewater regulations. When new regulations will require cities to spend billions of dollars to upgrade infrastructure, our citizens and businesses deserve an independent second opinion.

There is currently no meaningful way for cities to obtain an independent scientific review of MPCA’s regulations. In recent years, cities have been forced to enter into litigation when the MPCA has ignored legitimate concerns about the underlying science and its application.

The MPCA should welcome independent peer review of their science because it will confirm that water-quality rules are scientifically sound, help to avoid costly litigation and ultimately improve environmental outcomes.

City leaders also have serious qualms about the MPCA’s habit of imposing water-quality restrictions — under the guise of “policies” or “guidance documents” — that are more stringent than adopted during rulemaking. To address this concern, the CGMC is pursuing legislation that prevents the MPCA from imposing regulations that were not properly adopted through the rulemaking process.

By forcing cities to comply with unadopted rules, the MPCA imposes requirements that have not gone through the proper vetting process and ignores the due process rights of the public. Not only does this practice make it very difficult for cities to strategize and plan for how to adhere to regulations, it also breaks down trust between the MPCA, cities and the public.

The CGMC’s third regulatory reform proposal would extend the public comment period for new city permits to 60 days. This minor change is especially important to small cities where city councils meet less frequently and there are fewer staff members. The current 30-day comment period does not allow enough time for cities to adequately analyze and make decisions about MPCA requirements that could have multi-million effects on their communities.

All three of the CGMC’s top environmental regulatory reform proposals — independent peer review of MPCA science, prohibiting the enforcement of unadopted rules and extending the public comment period — remain in play at the Legislature. The House and Senate deserve credit for putting these provisions in their omnibus environment bill, which is currently being reviewed in conference committee.

We want our legislators and Gov. Dayton to know that we are looking out for the best interests of the constituents we represent and the environment, just like they are. Greater Minnesota city leaders — from along the Red River in the north to the Minnesota River in the south and everywhere in between — are willing to continue to invest money and work with the state to clean and protect our waters. However, recent overreach by the MPCA has resulted in an onslaught of regulations that will be extremely costly to implement and have dubious environmental benefit.

We are hopeful that these common-sense reform measures, which aim to protect our communities’ natural and financial resources, will be signed into law this session.