Baxter City Council forges ahead on Whiskey Creek amid funding uncertainty
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funds is on the line, with no clear portents of the future.
The city of Baxter has decided to stay the course.
During a virtual council meeting, Tuesday, Aug. 4, members of the Baxter City Council deliberated their next course of action with regard to the Whiskey Creek stormwater project — a $1.7 million initiative to take 80 acres of a former golf course at Whiskey Creek, which funnels roughly 400 acres of drainage from commercial properties, and transform it into a habitat of native plants and wildlife to clean up polluted water runoff.
The project has been years in the making and has been described not as an imminent necessity for the city but good stewardship of the land. The city of Baxter is pursuing a purchase of 13 acres of the former Pine Meadows Golf Course for about $500,000 to create a large treatment pond, iron-removal filter and greenspace with a water quality goal. About $1 million in costs is expected to complete the Whiskey Creek stormwater project.
For now, though, the Whiskey Creek stormwater is in a state of limbo. In a unanimous vote, the council opted to continue with the funding application process and hope for the best, while the fate of hundreds of thousands in state funding remains uncertain down in St. Paul.
The city originally planned to launch the three-year stormwater project in 2020. However, plans have hit a significant snag, as the primary source of funding for the project — the 2020 Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund bill — failed to pass the state Legislature during a chaotic and abbreviated session this year. Furthermore, the bill failed to pass during special sessions in June and July, and while there’s a chance it could pass during an August special session, the deadline for another state grant, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Clean Water Funds, on Aug. 17.
In short, City Administrator Brad Chapulis noted the city could lose out on Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund funding for now, which would jeopardize their chances for an MPCA loan and force the city to restructure their participation, as well as prepare for potential future grants, in a process that could push the project back years. The key issue is how the city is going to handle the initial $500,000 to acquire 13 acres of property for the stormwater project.
“From the legislative side, there hasn’t really been any indication,” Chapulis said. “I know this funding, as well as the bonding bill, have been set aside as a negotiating tactic in both houses. … I don't think a third time would be the charm. I think we should expect more of the same.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Chapulis presented three options for the city to consider for the Whiskey Creek stormwater project:
Option A: The city goes ahead with the Clean Water Fund grant application, with no significant changes to the project’s funding model. This would mean the city would ride with Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund monies to fund the site acquisition, which means that if Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund money isn’t approved by state lawmakers by the end of October, it would force the city to allocate more resources for grant writing in 2021 and possibly 2022.
Option B: The city submits the Clean Water Fund grant application, but also includes language putting Baxter on the hook for any funds the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund doesn’t cover if it’s not passed. This means Baxter would have an increased funding participation by $200,000, and would have to find alternative means to fund the additional $300,000 for property acquisition purposes. If the trust fund dollars pass the state Legislature, this would have no bearing on the progress of the project and things would proceed as originally planned.
Option C: Would boil down to the city not submitting a Clean Water Fund grant application this year, but waiting for the trust fund. This would postpone the project by one year if Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars are allocated this year, two to three years if they are not, and the city may need to budget for grant writing services in 2021 and 2022.
Council member Mark Cross made his stance known early.
“I'm in the camp of going with A and pushing forward on it and hoping for the best,” he said.
A consensus was built quickly and the motion passed unanimously among all five council members.
The 80-acre former golf course property, purchased by the Good Samaritan Society in 2013, includes the headwaters of Whiskey Creek and the drainage from a large portion of the commercial land in Baxter along Highway 371. The golf course, which dated back to the 1920s, ceased operations at the end of the 2004 season. While plans have come and gone for the site, the land was largely left undisturbed.
In January of last year, Chapulis said the city worked with Good Samaritan, which was comfortable the 13 acres would not impact any of Good Samaritan's plans for the site in the future. The concept plan calls for about 6 acres of open water. The pond and work at the site would slow the water, allow sediments and phosphorus to drop out, use up nitrogen and let much cleaner water continue on to the Mississippi.
In other business, the council:
Approved a temporary waiver for mobile food vendors to operate in the city limits of Baxter in order to promote business activity. As there will be no large gatherings like fairs, carnivals or things of the like, the city is granting eight vendors temporary leniency on licence applications, a cap of four vendors operating at any one time, as well as a restriction on how much signage can be displayed.
Approved the purchase of a microclor cell for $14,375. The microclor system generates hypochlorite, which is used as a disinfectant in the water treatment plant. Two out of five cells may need to be replaced during the life of the system. Cell four has a life expectancy of 7-10 years and cell five has a life expectancy of 5-7 years.
Approved repairs costing $9,800 to the Brainerd/Baxter water interconnect. Currently, the interconnect is not working properly and city employees are forced to manually add chlorine and other disinfectant measures. A representative of Hawkins Inc. is scheduled to install a temporary sodium hypochlorite tank, deliver 50 gallons of sodium hypochlorite and install a chemical feed pump so the interconnect can be used in the event of an emergency.
Approved the purchase of water treatment media — or chemical and granular filtration substances like manganese dioxide — for the water treatment facility after a mechanical failure has led to the loss of upwards of 30% of media. The replacement media costs $15,724.
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .