REGIONAL — Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday released his fourth and final list of projects he has identified for inclusion in a proposed $2 billion bonding bill this legislative session. Making the list are the W.E.L.L. (Welcome, Education, Library and Livability) — a collaborative project of Nobles County, the city of Worthington and Independent School District 518 — and the Ellsworth City Hall.
Under the governor’s proposal, both Nobles County and the city of Ellsworth would receive the full amounts requested — $16 million for the W.E.L.L. and $1.345 million for the new Ellsworth City Hall. The funds would come from general obligation bonding.
Not making Walz’s list for recommended bonding are several other area projects, including development of a new water source for Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water; a regional water expansion project for Red Rock Rural Water; water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure improvements in the city of Currie; and the Red Leaf Court storm sewer project in the city of Windom.
While they didn’t make Walz’s list, those projects aren’t necessarily off the table. Both the House and Senate bonding committees will develop their own priorities from the more than $5 billion in requests statewide.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said the W.E.L.L.’s inclusion in the governor’s proposal was “phenomenal news,” while Ellsworth Mayor Tasha Domeyer said the selection of her community’s city hall project is “awesome.”
Wednesday’s announcement came one year to the day that Ellsworth’s 115-year-old city hall building was destroyed by fire.
Site studies continue for W.E.L.L.
After learning Wednesday that the W.E.L.L. project is on Walz’s list for funding, Johnson said, “I’m excited. We haven’t given up on this project because it’s a good project for the community.”
LHB, the Minneapolis-based architectural firm hired to design the collaborative building, will be in Worthington Feb. 6-7 to kick off an in-depth planning session.
“They want to meet with all of the involved folks who want to reside in that building,” Johnson said. “They want to see how they can accommodate the space — what can be shared and what can’t.”
The plan is to have the issues with the site and the size and scope of the building worked out before the legislature acts on a bonding bill. The 2020 legislative session begins Feb. 11 and will continue through mid-May.
Johnson has maintained conversations with local representation, including District 22 Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) and District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), regarding the W.E.L.L., and said he hopes the county can visit again with the House and Senate bonding committees during the legislative session.
Ellsworth making progress on new city hall
Both Weber and Hamilton joined Ellsworth city leaders in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new city hall building on Oct. 1, 2019. Swift Contractors, Inc., of Sioux Falls, S.D., continues to make progress on the wood-frame building.
“They’ve got all of the rafters up and they were hoping to get it covered before the snow comes,” Domeyer said Wednesday afternoon. “We have another crew working to get started on the maintenance shop.”
The new city hall is hoped to be completed by late June, while the new maintenance shop will likely be finished earlier.
If the city does receive the full $1.345 million as Walz recommends, the money will help fund construction of a rec center onto the new city hall. A capital campaign is already underway for the project.
Domeyer said city leaders will continue to lobby on behalf of their community.
“Hopefully we’re going to all try to go up (to St. Paul) and maybe some residents, too,” she said of the city council.
Walz: $5.3 billion in requests
During a conference call with Greater Minnesota media Wednesday afternoon, Walz said he, as well as House and Senate bonding committees, visited communities to vet the projects.
“We had a record number of requests for state assistance from communities across Minnesota, which is why we took the step of visiting these projects ourselves and getting feedback directly from communities and Minnesotans on what was most important to them,” he said. “It’s Minnesota’s plan, and these are Minnesota’s projects. The need is real, interest rates are low, and the best time to fix a leaky roof isn’t after your house has flooded. The time to act is now.”
Walz said the state is as fiscally sound as ever and needs to start tackling the backlog of infrastructure improvements, from road and bridge repair and replacements to water line reconstruction and expansion. The projects he recommends funding are those that “seemed ready to go,” he said.
“These projects are not going to get cheaper and these communities are in a position where they don’t want to wait anymore,” Walz added.
While the state could seek up to $3 billion in bonding, Walz said his $2 billion plan stays fiscally responsible and won’t jeopardize the state’s Triple A bond rating.
“This is manageable even if we get into a bit of a downturn,” Walz said.
Acknowledging his $2 billion bonding recommendation covers slightly less than 40% of the requests made, Walz said he is prepared to listen to the House and Senate proposals.
Weber said Thursday he anticipates the House will want to bond for more money, while the Senate will be looking for a smaller bond.
“There’s some problems, I think, with his bill,” Weber said of Walz’s recommendations. “There are some very necessary and specific projects (such as rural water) that he has not dealt with. There are some strong needs out there in the countryside.”
Despite those needs, Weber thinks $2 billion is too much.
“Just because someone thinks we have the capability (to bond more) doesn’t mean we should always go that route,” he said. “While we have an economy that overall has done well … we have to be mindful that nothing ever stays entirely good.”
While Weber said he was glad to see a couple of projects from his district on the governor’s list, he said, “I have no idea what the chances are of each surviving.”
The Senate bonding committee still plans to conduct one more vetting session — this one in the metro’s suburbs — and may not have a bonding bill ready to present for another couple of months, Weber shared.
“We have a fairly long wait-and-see period here,” Weber said, welcoming constituents to weigh in with the bonding committees on the projects important to them.
Hamilton, meanwhile, said both the Ellsworth City Hall and W.E.L.L. projects are “fantastic and very worthy projects.”
Hamilton joined the House bonding committee’s visit to Worthington, and noted how steering his wheelchair through the West Learning Center gave him the opportunity to show Mary Murphy, chairwoman of the capital investment committee, the building’s inadequacies, particularly for people with disabilities.
“I want to thank the individuals that have worked so hard both in Ellsworth and in Nobles County putting these projects together,” he said. “They've done a fantastic job addressing the details and also building relationships with individuals in St. Paul and the Governor’s Office.”
Working together, regardless of party affiliation, is “the way it needs to be done,” Hamilton said.