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Lewis and Clark funded, but many details left to sort out

WORTHINGTON — It appears there may be a way to fund the remaining portion of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System to its Minnesota members after all.

In the final days of the Minnesota Legislature, a plan was set forth to fund the remaining construction. However, with a last-minute bill being put together, there is still confusion as to how it will affect the four Minnesota members of Lewis & Clark.

“We have really worked to get this thing done,” said Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh. “There are so many hours that have gone into it. As it sounds, there is a funding mechanism in place now to complete the remaining portion of it.”

After a hard push from local representatives to include the entire amount in this year’s bonding bill, two different sources will be used to fund the project.

The first is $22 million in budget surplus cash from the public works bill.

“Because of the ownership of the pipe — which would be owned by Lewis & Clark, which is a joint powers group, which is a multi-state thing — they had some concerns about whether the state could finance through bonding the amount of money we requested,” Oberloh said. “In order to make it happen, they chose to fund $22 million of it with the excess cash from the surplus the state has. That frees it up, so the ownership issue goes away.”

Lewis & Clark is a multi-state project, but the money from the state will stay within the four Minnesota members — Worthington, Luverne, Rock County Rural Water and Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water.

According to Troy Larson, executive director of the Lewis & Clark project, that $22 million will complete multiple connections.

“What that will allow us to do is get from the Iowa border to Luverne and to Magnolia, which is the second connection for Rock County Rural Water,” Larson said. “Then, because of the strong support from the governor and the three local legislators to try to get funding all the way to Worthington, they came up with this other idea.

“It became clear two days ago that their efforts to get the full amount to Worthington in the bonding bill were not going to be successful,” Larson continued. “No matter what they tried, they were not going to get the money that was needed to get to Worthington.”

The remaining portion of the money necessary will come from a provision in a tax bill.

“Once it came clear it was going to be $22 million in the bonding bill, Plan B was this tax bill,” Larson said. “We are still very unclear about all the details of this because it came together so quickly. We weren’t involved in any of the drafting.

“What we’re understanding is this is an avenue that the Minnesota members could possibly use to try to get the pipe to Worthington. It would involve bonding that the local members would have to bond, and the state would increase the Local Government Aid to provide additional funds to make those payments — but not all the payments.”

Larson believes the local members could be responsible for one third of those payments.

“Here’s what we do know: As they were scrambling to put this together, we all agreed that even though this might not be perfect; this is getting thrown together so quickly that this bill may or may not be workable,” he said. “But it’s better to pass something and then try to go in next session and try to fix it than having nothing.”

Oberloh said he isn’t sure how it would all be funded. Forum News Service reported the county and city officials could raise taxes without a public referendum, a sales tax could be added or property taxes could be raised to go along with issuing bonds as options for the local share.

“I’ll tell you this, nobody wants to see tax increases,” Oberloh said. “But if things would have continued the way they were going with the paltry amount of money the federal government was putting into this project the way it was, it would not be anywhere near to completion until 2065, and that was based on no inflation factors.”

Larson gave credit to District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker (R-Luverne) and District 22 Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne), as well as Gov. Mark Dayton, for helping get the plan in place.

“We are very excited that they would add this possible avenue,” Larson said. “It’s just that we don’t know how it’s going to work yet. The only reason this is in there is it shows the strong support by the governor and the three local legislators to get the pipe all the way to Worthington.”

The connections to Luverne and Rock County Rural Water are ready for construction. However, in a best-case scenario, it would be at least three years before Worthington could be connected.

“Right now we are shovel-ready from the Iowa border to Luverne,” Larson said. “That project is going to get bid pretty soon. From Luverne all the way to Worthington, because of the lack of federal funding, we have done no engineering, we have done no easement acquisition, so that’s going to take a little more time.”

Daily Globe Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7330.