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MMSD targets construction spending cuts

Sean Ryan
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The development market might not let the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District dramatically slash its construction budget in the next five years.

Milwaukee-area underground contractors are rooting for the market.

“This is not going to stop next year, and there is pressure from the southern communities of Franklin and Muskego to build,” said Richard Wanta, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association.

District officials intend to cut construction spending on sewers and other infrastructure from $266 million in 2010 to about $40 million in 2014 and focus on paying down the debt the district has accumulated during a construction boom.

But that could change based on the whim of a developer. MMSD, for instance, is targeting 2020 for construction of a Franklin sewer project. But the interceptor sewer might be needed much sooner than that if development picks up in the city, said Joel Dietl, Franklin planning manager.

When the need arises — whether because a large business moves to Franklin or because population growth creates a need for housing — the city will need a partner such as the MMSD to help pay for the new sewer, he said.

“There’s too many issues going on — the economy is one of them — to really pinpoint when,” Dietl said.

Franklin’s project is just one example of the built-in uncertainty that makes long-range budget planning a challenge for the sewerage district, which on Monday approved a 2010 capital budget with a no increase for district taxpayers. District officials expect project spending to dive during the next five years as MMSD wraps up a $1 billion schedule of court-ordered projects to reduce sewer overflows.

But project plans are always in flux, said Mark Kaminski, MMSD acting controller and treasurer. Sometimes more money becomes available because of low bid prices or federal grants. Other times, the budget gets squeezed because a need arises for new projects.

The uncertainty surrounding MMSD’s budget might make planning hard for the district’s financial department, but it also means contractors should not fret over the possibility of spending cuts, Wanta said.

The sewer overflows that prompted the district to spend $1 billion during the past few years continue to happen if there are consecutive days of heavy rains, he said. The future may hold more lawsuits that result in more court-mandated projects, Wanta said.

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