East Grand Forks might tack $9 a month onto residents’ water bills to pay for sewer maintenance and replacements.

City Council members on Tuesday took an initial look at a proposal put together by city staff that would pay for increasingly high price tags for storm and sanitary sewer maintenance, plus a second, overlapping proposal that would pay for chunks of those systems to be replaced as they age. City staff estimated that the money needed for the maintenance idea would increase East Grand Forks residents’ water bills by $5 each month, and the replacement proposal would tack on another $4. In all, both ideas combined would mean an additional $450,000 each year for the city – $50,000 per additional dollar – which is the equivalent of a 4.5% increase to its property tax levy.

“Please think of these in the two separate categories,” Mayor Steve Gander said, noting that the $5 proposed hike would aim to keep the city’s stormwater and sewer funds solvent. “Now, the $4 per month ... those would be giving us the opportunity to more proactively fund some projects.”

East Grand Forks’ sewer maintenance is getting more expensive for two reasons: additional “inflow” and “infiltration,” which, in a nutshell, means water is seeping into the city’s sewers that then needs to be treated; and higher “strength” sewage that, in effect, contains more dirt and other biomass than normal.

The $4 per month to pay for future sewer replacements is the latest in a long-running conversation in East Grand Forks, which requires property owners on a given street to foot the whole bill for the street’s replacement. City leaders considered changing that policy in 2019 but ultimately decided to keep it as is. That policy has become a problem in at least one neighborhood, where the street is long overdue for a rebuild but residents balked at the high price tag. (Gander said Tuesday he believes the city can rehab that street regardless of the fate of the proposed rate hike.)

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The $4 rate hike would technically only pay for replacing sewer lines, but it’s almost inextricably linked to street reconstruction efforts because at least some of a roadway would need to be torn apart and rebuilt to access the sewers underneath it in the first place.

“If these lines were to be replaced independently of a reconstruction project, the street surfacing, curb, gutter etc., would need to be disturbed and replaced,” City Administrator David Murphy wrote to council members in a Feb. 9 memo.

The $5 monthly rate hike that would pay for existing maintenance needs was relatively noncontroversial among City Council members on Tuesday, and Murphy said he hopes to have it on a council agenda for final approval by March.

The $4 beyond that could be a bigger ask. Council President Mark Olstad wondered if it makes more sense to pay for it via property taxes rather than utility fees.

“If we’re running into fund balance issues because of rate structure or increased need, I have every confidence that (Public Works Director) Jason (Stordahl) knows what he’s doing and that he can put together that type of proposal,” council member Marc DeMers said. “If this is a backhanded way of trying to pay for streets through a different enterprise fund, I guess we’ll have to take a look at what those rate increases are and deal with it then. I won’t vote for a backhanded way of getting streets done with different enterprise fees.”

In related news, council members:

  • Were briefed on a “Welcoming Communities Assessment” put together by staff at East Grand Forks Public Schools. The assessment would try to find where and how the city, as a whole, succeeds –and where it fails – as more people immigrate there.

  • Didn’t object to a plan to formally vote on a resolution that asks the Minnesota Legislature to at least maintain its existing levels of local government aid, which is a longstanding program that seeks to subsidize the expenses of relatively small cities across the state. The resolution, which the League of Minnesota Cities is urging all of its member cities to adopt, is set to head to a council meeting next week for formal adoption.