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Wastewater plant upgrade gets first nod
 Petersen 04  / 

A proposal to start upgrades for Rochester’s water reclamation plant found support Monday.

The Rochester City Council gave a nod to the process that will start the first phase of a three-phase upgrade with a total estimated cost of $87 million.

While council members voiced concerns regarding the overall proposed price tag, Public Works Director Chris Petree said funds for the $10 million first phase are already available.

A quarter of the $10 million was approved in 2014, and the council will be asked next month to approve using $7.5 million from the sewer enterprise’s reserve fund.

“There’s a number of check-ins that the council will have on just Phase 1,” he said, noting other approvals will be needed as design efforts get underway and work continues into next year.

The next phase of work, which is slated to start as early as 2021, would come with the highest estimated price tag of the three phases — $62 million.

Wendy Turri, deputy director of public works — environmental services, said that work, which would include revising the process for treating wastewater, could be eligible for a $7 million grant, as well as a low-interest state loan as the city nears the expected 2026 end of an existing loan for work completed in 2004.

Turri said the current rate plan covers the expected added cost for starting the projects.

“They anticipated the next five to six years would continue to have some increases and then things would really start to slow down,” she said.

With a new rate study expected to start next year, she said payments on a future loan could be part of that work, adding she expects using a state-supported loan could decrease the city’s loan payments in the long run.

Petree noted the actual amount of any future loan remains undetermined. The combined $87 million cost of the proposed work, which is likely to extend into the final years of the next decade, is an estimate, and he said the goal is to find ways to reduce costs.

“These are very conservative, high-level numbers,” he said.

While the final price tag may be murky, Turri said the plant’s needs are clear.

She said a key goal in the proposed project is maintaining the reliability of a plant that treats 14 million gallons of wastewater per day.

“We want to make sure we can do that every day,” she said.

Displaying a plastic bag filled with small broken parts that have interrupted processes in recent months, she said the plant needs to be upgraded to ensure wastewater continues being treated.

“It’s old and it’s breaking,” she said.

And environmental standards are tightening for a plant that was built in the 1980s.

“We know we are going to get a tighter phosphorus limit,” Turri said, noting the current plant won’t meet the new requirements.

While discussing the project, Council President Randy Staver said he appreciated the forward-thinking approach but also suggested watching state efforts that could encourage developing a regional approach to wastewater treatment.

“I don’t think we should think of a project of this magnitude in isolation.” he said.

Turri said the reliability being sought with the proposed project means Rochester would be able to handle wastewater from a neighboring communities, if needed.

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Father’s Day baking

A sweet dessert can show Dad you care this Father’s Day.

$48B increase a start on Walz’s K-12 promise

ST. PAUL — Schools around the state are set to see a funding boost next year (as well as the year after) under a $48 billion, two-year spending plan passed through the Legislature and was signed into law.

And that could mean districts struggling to make ends meet can skip bond referendum votes and resulting property tax hikes for Minnesotans, at least for now, Gov. Tim Walz and Commissioner of the Department of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker told reporters on Monday.

Walz, a former geography teacher, approved the $543 million E-12 education spending bill that will boost funding to Minnesota public schools by 2% next year compared to current levels and another 2% in the year after. It’s not as much of an increase as Walz wanted to provide for education, but it’s a “downpayment” on what he hopes will be a longer-term investment in public schools.

“This education budget is that sort of downpayment on that education state,” Commissioner of the Department of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker told Greater Minnesota reporters, referring back to Walz’s bid to make Minnesota the “education state.” “While I know that we can and we will do more, I know this is the start that our school communities were looking for.”

Education groups hoped to see a bigger number pass through the Capitol this year, but in the divided Legislature, Democrats said they weren’t able to get Republicans who hold control in the Senate to budge.

And while it’s not as much as Walz or the House DFL caucus hoped to provide for public schools, the DFL governor said with the increases in funding to the education formula along with state support to offset the growing price tag for special education could help schools stay afloat.

Farmers, who’ve paid an outsized amount in ag land property taxes, will also see tax credits and the state will help pay some of the property tax dollars ag landowners owe to school districts.

Under the education bill, the state will also pay to fund 4,000 voluntary pre-kindergarten slots that were set to expire.

Walz said his next budget request would likely include more voluntary pre-kindergarten slots. And after all 201 state legislative seats come up for a vote in 2020, Walz could have a group more willing to support that push in 2021.

“I think you probably expect to see that as a big piece, a cornerstone of our next budget,” he said of boosting the voluntary pre-kindergarten slots. The education spending plan also put another $8.1 million toward American Indian tribal schools over the next four years.

But looking down the road, there’s more work to do to get Minnesota public schools the dollars they need to provide students equal quality of education across districts in the state, Walz said.

Insulin access again a focus

The debate over access to emergency insulin resurfaced again Monday, as Walz prepared to speak with Nicole Smith-Holt.

Smith-Holt’s son Alec Smith died in 2017 after he rationed his insulin and suffered complications from Type 1 diabetes. For months, Smith-Holt advocated for change at the Capitol this year. And in the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers jettisoned a proposal to charge drugmakers to fund emergency insulin supplies from a massive health and human services bill.

Walz said he wasn’t sure whether he could bring an executive action to make the drug available to those who couldn’t afford it or needed an emergency supply.

“We’re pursuing what we can,” Walz said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get control of the price and accessibility.”

Post Bulletin file photo 

Water Reclamation Plant

Rochester’s Water Reclamation Plant, shown in 2007, is due for an $87 million upgrade.