City disappointed in lack of special session success
BEMIDJI -- The Minnesota Legislature's special session ended without passing important bills, leaving the city of Bemidji and other municipalities in a tough position.
When the session concluded early Saturday morning, there was no bonding bill passed by legislators. There was also a failure to pass a police accountability reform package, a tax bill and a plan to spend federal coronavirus aid.
In a statement released after the session's conclusion, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities President Audrey Nelsen called the situation a train wreck.
"Between the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn and civil unrest, Minnesotans need strong leadership at the Legislature now more than ever," Nelsen said. "Instead, we got arbitrary deadlines, broken deals and partisan battles. For months, long before the pandemic, city leaders have been calling on the Legislature to pass a bonding bill that will create thousands of jobs and invest in infrastructure needs across the state."
In Bemidji's case, the city government was pushing for a bonding bill with a specific request for $8 million to help build a new water treatment plant. The facility is being built near the Bemidji Regional Airport, where the city's water wells are.
The chemicals were formerly found in fire fighting foams and the airport has been used as a training ground for local fire departments.
In recent years, the city learned that there were chemicals in the area known as perfluorocarbons that have made their way into the water wells. In following guidance from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the city chose to build a new plant to treat those chemicals.
Earlier this month, the city authorized work to begin on the facility by awarding a bid of $6.06 million to Rice Lake Contracting. When factoring in other costs, such as engineering, inspection and construction contingencies, the total comes to $7.34 million.
The city's plan is to have the immediate work be the first phase of the project. The second phase will then be to expand the facility, allowing the plant to treat more water. When including the next phase, the total comes to an estimated $14 million, and the city is seeking $8 million from the state to help cover the cost.
"From the city's perspective, we're really disappointed," Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said. "We put a lot of work into some special legislation this year for the city."
Along with the bonding bill request, the city also hoped for a tax bill to get passed with authorization to hold a referendum in the next election. The referendum would create a 0.5% sales tax over a 10-year period.
Revenue generated from the tax would assist with the cost of the water treatment plant. Additionally, dollars from the tax would go toward the city-owned Sanford Center and upgrades at the wastewater treatment facility.
With the latter, the city has been informed that improvements are needed at the wastewater plant to handle city growth and potentially treat for ammonia and nitrogen, depending on new permitting. The sales tax could help with these issues, as well as for general maintenance.
The city's event center, meanwhile, needs nearly $750,000 for annual capital maintenance needs. The sales tax dollars would also go toward those capital needs at the building, which is a decade old.
"We realized earlier on because of COVID-19 that sales tax requests weren't going to be moving this year, and we respectfully understood that," Mathews said. "But the bonding bill had been talked about for a long time, it's a bonding year, and it seemed as if there was good momentum to get more than $1 billion in both chambers. I was surprised to see that it fell victim to politics as usual, because everyone knows there's big needs for public infrastructure."
Mathews said city staff and officials are going to continue reaching out to District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji and District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, as well as other local legislators, to express the need for state funding.
"We remain hopeful that the governor will call everyone back, but at this stage of the game, who knows what he will do," Mathews said. "We're still going to advocate for a bonding bill. It's not in our control or authority, but we're still hopeful for that. We want to strongly recommend all members of the public to encourage their legislators to do that for all of Minnesota. If they don't get it done, we're going to try again next year. We need that state assistance."