Lawsuit over environmental fund leaves projects on hold

December 29, 2018

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. (AP) — Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka felt relieved when he learned last year that his central Minnesota city would get almost $7 million for a new sewage treatment plant.

The city’s wastewater plant needs to be upgraded because it’s releasing too much phosphorus into the Mississippi River, Minnesota Public Radio News reported . Zylka welcomed word that the city of 8,700 would get help paying for the $21-million project.

“When we heard that it went through, I get chills just talking about it,” he said.

But a lawsuit has put that project and others like it on hold, leaving officials unclear on when they will be able to move forward.

Lawmakers last session approved a measure allowing the state to issue up to $98 million in appropriation bonds for sewer improvements, lake dredging and other projects using money from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to pay annual debt service. Conservation groups sued in October, saying that’s not what the fund was intended to cover.

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy spokesman Aaron Klemz said the group is challenging the “raid of the fund” because it’s unconstitutional and goes against voters’ will. The state approved a constitutional amendment in 1988 to create the fund for the “protection, conservation, preservation and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife and other natural resources.”

The conservation groups contend that paying off debt for a wastewater treatment plant doesn’t fit that definition — though they agree the infrastructure projects are necessary and will benefit the environment.

“Just because it’s a worthy purpose doesn’t mean you can raid any money, steal any money from any source that you can grab, in order to get the job done,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

Morse said lawmakers should instead reverse course and pass a new bonding bill when the upcoming legislative session starts in January. One lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Rick Hansen, tweeted recently that he will sponsor a bill to undo the Legislature’s use of the funds.

But Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, co-chairman of the legislative-citizen panel that oversees the fund, said he doesn’t think the use is unconstitutional. He said many cities in the state have old sewer and water systems that need repairs, and traditional bonding can’t pay for them all.

“It’s just almost impossible to keep up,” Ingebrigtsen said. “We have such a need out there.”

For now, the projects are on hold until lawmakers act or the lawsuit is concluded. Meanwhile, Zylka said he’s not taking sides.

“I’m proud of the fact that we worry about our water and take care of our water. To me, that’s a top priority,” he said. “We can’t throw that all on the back on local taxpayers.”


Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org

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