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Mandates make sewer projects top priority

Sean Ryan
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Small southeastern Wisconsin communities are grappling with how to balance budgets for mandated long-term sewer maintenance without increasing taxes or fees.

The state — through the settlement of 2003 sewer overflow violations —is requiring 29 communities in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to reduce the amount of water leaking into cracked sewer pipes.

Communities are writing plans to ramp up efforts to replace manholes, identify leaks and repair pipes quickly.

Plans are due to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources by June 30.

The village of Bayside, for example, will raise $685,000 this year through sewer user fees, some of which will be spent on sewer repair projects, said Village Manager Andy Pederson. He said since Bayside is still drafting its long-range maintenance plan, he doesn’t know whether that money will be enough to cover costs in future years. And if it’s not, rates must increase, he said.

“You can say it’s simple, but any time you are raising people’s rates or taxes, it’s a difficult decision to make,” he said.

In nearby Brown Deer, Superintendent of Public Works Larry Neitzel said the village will have enough money to pay for the required maintenance work, but was unsure if there will be enough room in the left in the budget to pay for other large projects, such as rehabbing the sewer near the intersection of River Lane and Deerwood Drive.

To pay for the project, the village is considering borrowing money, spending tax-incremental finance money or applying for stimulus money through a state program that offers low-interest loans for public wastewater projects.

Ultimately, Neitzel said, “It could end up being postponed until the economy returns.”

Local governments should have been performing court-mandated maintenance work all along, but they deferred much of it until the state orders came down, said Richard Wanta, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association Inc. He said the maintenance work will generate bidding opportunities for sewer contractors and work for road builders.

“Local municipal government doesn’t do much unless they get told to do it by a higher level of government,” Wanta said.

Robert Brunner, River Hills village president and vice chairman of the MMSD Commission, said prioritizing leak reduction is a fairly new concept, though.

“The science has really proven that action in certain areas was more responsible for adverse water quality than in other areas,” he said. “It wasn’t just a question of polluting water and having the water going into Lake Michigan. The inflow and infiltration, through various studies, was amplified.”

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