Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Setting priorities

Questionable planning creating problems for the city of Tower

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As we report this week, the Tower City Council has taken an issue that needed attention and turned it into a critical problem— apparently without realizing it.

It’s a troubling pattern we’ve seen in recent months, where the council makes decisions without all the facts or the due diligence we expect from local leaders.

In the most recent case, the city council opted to spend upwards of half a million dollars to extend the municipal sewer to Hoodoo Point Campground, at a time when the combined city-township wastewater treatment system is nearing its capacity. We’ve been questioning this project for months, in part because we’ve never seen a clear plan to pay for the revenue bond the city plans to issue for the project. Proposed rate increases at the campground, plus the addition of several new RV sites, will pay much of the cost, but even the city’s own numbers suggest that some of the debt service will come from campground profits that the city relies on, in part, to fund its operations.

But the bigger issue is that the connection of the campground is expected to increase the wastewater flow by about 10,000 gallons per day. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Tower-Breitung wastewater treatment system has only about 15,000 gallons per day of remaining capacity until it reaches what the agency considers the upper safe limit— and that’s before adding the campground.

Once the campground is operational next spring, the system will be very close to full capacity, and that poses real concerns given plans in the works for town home development, a privately-owned RV park, a potential hotel and additional commercial development. While the MPCA tries to work with communities to ensure that potential development isn’t needlessly delayed or denied, the agency has less room to maneuver when a system is nearing capacity. And the agency is less likely to show flexibility if a community isn’t advancing a plan to address the problem.

While an expansion of the Tower-Breitung wastewater capacity was probably always going to be necessary given anticipated new development, questionable planning by the city council has turned a manageable problem with a longer time horizon, into something much closer to an emergency, and it makes the cost-benefit of the campground project all the more troubling. The Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board, realistically, needs to have a plan in place and an application submitted to the state’s Public Facilities Authority by March 1, 2018, to have a reasonable chance of bringing additional capacity on line by 2020.

We’ve argued for some time that the city needs to prioritize, and this is another example of why that’s important. Adding a half dozen RV sites at the campground, which prompted the decision to extend the municipal sewer, probably deserves to be on the city’s wish list, but certainly nowhere near the top, and not at the possible expense of real development that will add to the city’s tax base and bring new jobs to the community. We can only hope that the MPCA will allow the city to connect the first phase of 20 town homes, which would likely put the system at over 85 percent of capacity, at least based on the current three-year average flow. The prospect of adding much beyond that would seem to be in serious question. If a hotel project ends up on hold because the last of the city’s wastewater capacity was squandered on an unnecessary campground project, residents should be irate.

Residents should also be asking where all the money will come from to pay for the things the city needs, much less the frills that some city officials desire. The city is already committed to installing roads and utilities for the town homes, which will likely require bonding. And city officials continue to push for new city buildings, although they’ve kept a tight lid on their plans, so it’s tough to know how much that all might cost. A city water main also needs replacement. Expanding the wastewater capacity could easily cost $1 million or more.

An expanded tax base could help to pay for some of these things. Which is why the remaining wastewater capacity should have been reserved for projects like the town homes and a hotel, that would provide the growth in tax base the city so desperately needs. Now, the council has added one more hurdle to development efforts in the city. The city has plenty of those already.

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