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Papio-Missouri River NRD will ask lawmakers to extend its authority to issue bonds

January 22, 2018

The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District is laying the groundwork for another 10 years of dam construction and flood control projects funded through added debt.

At a recent meeting the board voted 7-3 to ask the Nebraska Legislature in 2019 to extend the NRD’s bonding authority — something the Legislature first granted in 2009, but limited to 10 years.

The bonds’ debt is paid off through property taxes. Bonds are the NRD’s primary mechanism for funding dams and other flood-control projects. The permission granted in 2009 is due to sunset in 2019.

The district, which covers Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties and parts of Burt, Thurston and Dakota Counties, is the only one of 23 NRDs in the state that has general obligation bonding authority.

So far the NRD has issued nearly $71.5 million in debt to finance several projects: Western Sarpy Clear Creek and Waterloo/Floodway levees; the Kramper Lake/Danish Alps, Prairie Queen and Dam Site 15A reservoirs, and the Zorinsky Basin 1 water-quality project.

The district pursued bonding authority because it allows the NRD to tackle more projects than it would otherwise take on, and do so faster, which helps keep costs down, said John Winkler, the district’s general manager. Winkler said this also allows the district to purchase land earlier and at a lower cost than would be the case once an area develops.

Since the 2000s, efforts to give the NRD bonding authority have been opposed by taxpayer advocates and others.

Board member Ted Japp of Blair voted against the proposal at the NRD board’s Jan. 4 meeting. His main concern? Too much debt, he said.

“There is a sunset provision in this ... for a reason,” he said.

The district spends $4.4 million per year on debt service; its annual budget for the 2018 fiscal year is $66.7 million.

“We’ve got enough debt as it is, and I didn’t want to add to it,” Japp said.

The NRD’s property tax rate this year is 3.7797 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, so the owner of a home valued at $100,000 pays about $37.80 per year to the NRD. Of that, $5.52 per year goes toward the NRD’s debt service, Winkler said.

The three members who voted no were Japp, John B. Wiese of Papillion and David Klug of Gretna. Mark Gruenewald of Omaha was not present.

Also opposed is Shawn Melotz of rural Bennington, who is the president of the Papio Valley Preservation Association. She said the NRD’s budget has gone up dramatically since 2009. The budget was $44.2 million in 2008 but peaked at almost $93 million in 2014 before coming down to its current level.

Melotz also opposes the continued construction of dams. Instead, development of flood plains should be limited, she said. Parks with soccer fields, playgrounds and baseball diamonds should be built in flood plains instead of housing so that the space can absorb flooding more safely.

“I’m concerned that with bonding (the NRD) will ignore the less costly measures that could be used,” she said. “It’s just a matter of intelligent design of neighborhoods. Put the swingset where it’s going to flood, not the house.”

Obtaining bonding authority has not been easy for the district.

In 2007 and 2008 the Legislature turned back efforts to do so, before authorizing it in 2009.

And in 2016, local voters rejected the NRD’s effort to double its bonding authority.

According to information provided by the NRD, the dam system provides $25.1 million in benefits and savings annually to the watershed.

Board member Jim Thompson of Omaha spoke in favor of pursuing the bonding authority extension at the meeting.

“As we were trying to get ahead of flood control, this was a great tool,” Thompson said after the vote.

He likened the bonding authority to a mortgage: You don’t buy your house all at once. You don’t buy a dam all at once either.

“This way we can get those structures built and get it done,” he said.

andrew.nelson@owh.com, 402-444-1310, twitter.com/nelson_aj