It isn't known whether Nisswa sewer fees will increase or by how much, nor is it known whether the city will expand its wastewater treatment facilities.

What is known is that the city is at 90 percent of state permitted wastewater flows so must take some kind of action.

So, the city council on Wednesday, March 20, unanimously voted to allow the process to expand the sewer system to begin. That means a facilities plan will be sent to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for review, a financial package will be created and all details will be clarified.

A city council vote on whether to proceed with the estimated $3,927,500 expansion project could occur in September. If the project is approved, it would be designed next winter and built in 2020.

"The city will decide - can we afford it, and whether to proceed. We're talking a $4 million budget," City Engineer Mark Hallan, of Widseth Smith Nolting engineering firm, said at a public hearing March 20 at Nisswa City Hall that nearly 20 people attended.

Sewer rates

At a February workshop, the council heard a scenario where sewer rates could go up 9.25 percent each year for several years after a sewer system expansion was completed, possibly beginning in 2020.

Addressing citizens' concerns about higher rates at the March 20 public hearing, City Administrator Jenny Max said conversations are very preliminary right now and numbers presented at the workshop were worst-case scenario and simply a place for staff to start. Will there be a one-time rate increase? Will a rate increase be spread out over a couple of years? What does the city have in its sewer fund to apply to an expansion and remodel project?

"All those conversations are preliminary," Max said. "It's complicated and more conversations are needed as we fine-tune those numbers."

Max said staff would provide an update with more realistic numbers.

Also, the city is exploring options for funding help, including talking to area legislators for ideas and possibly seeking Public Finance Authority funding.

"I'm not a proponent of seeing quarterly fees go up much," Mayor Fred Heidmann said.

"I think the city has a lot of discussions to have on that topic yet. We really haven't gotten into it because we don't have really good numbers to work off of," he said. "The city is looking at what options are out there to help with funding. It's going to take awhile to figure it out and to see what monies we might be able to get."

Facilities plan

Hallan and Justin Schulz, also of WSN, talked about the history of the city's wastewater treatment system and the proposed expansion plan to submit to the MPCA, which issues permits to operate such systems.

The city's wastewater treatment system went online in 1991. The city council considered an expansion in 2006, but didn't carry through because of the recession. In 2008, the city bought land for future expansion. In 2012, the city expanded the irrigation system used to treat wastewater, made minor improvements to the plant and updated its MPCA permit.

Development in the last three years has and will lead to more use of the system. As the city hits the high end of its permitted use, it must consider what to do because the MPCA will want to know.

Heidmann said that while some people believe the Grand View Lodge expansion (including a hotel, recreation center and cottages) prompted the increase in wastewater system use, those facilities are just opening this spring.

The growth in 2018 was from various other sources, and a good portion of that last 10 percent of capacity likely will be used in 2019, he said. In addition to the Grand View facilities, American National Bank will open at Sportland Corners, and Moxy Hair Studio will open in its newly constructed building on Lakers Lane. There's a residential development area off of County Road 18 that could take off and be built as well.

Hallan said the city has three options: It could do nothing, but would have to answer to the MPCA; add a mechanical plant at an estimated $6.92 million plus operation and maintenance costs; or expand the plant with existing stabilization ponds.

The facilities plan addresses that last option. For the city to provide municipal sanitary sewer service for the next 20 years - taking into account projected development, redevelopment and population increases - the facilities plan proposes to construct a fourth wastewater treatment cell at the plant off Lower Roy Lake Road.

That wouldn't include expanding the sanitary sewer service area. Rather, there would be extensions of the collection system within the current service area. The city would have to consider any future developments that propose expansion of the sanitary sewer service area, either allowing the expansion or requiring those developments install individual septic systems.

Heidmann advised the public to stay involved and informed. Attend meetings and contact city council members and the city administrator, he said.

"And know we are deciding what to do and how we can minimize the cost," Heidmann said.