East Grand Forks leaders say sewage issue is about control
Despite having the lowest price tag, a project to pipe East Grand Forks sewage to Grand Forks for treatment appears to be dead. "Control" is the buzzword for East Grand Forks city leaders who prefer the city treat its own sewage, rather than part...
Despite having the lowest price tag, a project to pipe East Grand Forks sewage to Grand Forks for treatment appears to be dead.
"Control" is the buzzword for East Grand Forks city leaders who prefer the city treat its own sewage, rather than partnering with its larger neighbor for the so-called "wastewater interconnect." Although the partnership would involve a negotiated contract on pricing and other conditions, leaders say their constituents are wary of a deal.
"I have yet to run into an East Grand Forks person who wants to go with Grand Forks and I go to a lot of places," veteran City Council member Henry Tweten said.
Council member Ron Vonasek wavered on the issue in 2011 and 2012, but is now firmly with the majority. He was convinced by the feedback from his ward residents, which he estimated had 80 percent opposition to the partnership.
"At first, my thoughts were about which option had the most reasonable price," Vonasek said. "But the more we looked into it, the more I realized the cheapest isn't always the best. Making sure we have control is the most important thing."
Control, specifically over the costs to homeowners, was a commonly cited factor for the council members.
"My whole problem with the interconnect is that once you go there, you can't go back," Council member Clarence Vetter said. "If it doesn't work, you can't go and shop for something else.
"All the people who have voiced a concern to me have said they don't want to go with Grand Forks because they want to control our own destiny."
Council members Greg Leigh and Chad Grassel make it five of the seven council members against the interconnect. Mayor Lynn Stauss also wants to keep treatment at home.
"The community takes a lot of pride of being an independent city rather than hooked into Grand Forks," Leigh said. "It's not that we don't trust Grand Forks. We just want to be independent and our own small town."
November's city election was billed as a referendum on wastewater. The billing proved accurate.
Two interconnect supporters were defeated. Council member Mike Pokrzywinski fell to Grassel by almost a 2-to-1 margin and Council member Wayne Gregoire was edged by Stauss in the mayoral race. With Council member Marc DeMers not running for re-election, three of the four interconnect supporters in 2012 are no longer on the council.
Currently, the only interconnect supporters on the council are Council President Craig Buckalew and newcomer Mark Olstad, who each ran unopposed.
Buckalew recently sent a lengthy email to fellow council members that addressed three components of the decision -- financial, control and emotions.
He said the interconnect is the "cheapest," as computed by the city's consulting engineers. The engineers say the interconnect savings are somewhere between $4 million and $8.5 million compared than other options, which include fixing the lagoons, building new lagoons and building a water treatment plant.
However, Stauss and Tweten said they are skeptical about the accuracy of the consultants' numbers and suggest lagoons' restoration will be less expensive over the long run, meaning more than 30 years.
Control, including the cost, will be addressed by the agreement between East Grand Forks and Grand Forks, Buckalew said.
"We need to treat our human waste in the cheapest way possible so that we can have more money to spend on quality of life issues that are truly the most important," he said.
Buckalew noted that estimated savings could build the city a new swimming pool. The current pool is in disrepair and, although the city has pledged $1.5 million to the project, most of the fund-raising will need to be done privately.
Sewage vs. pool
That situation had Buckalew's email asking: "We are going to ship our children over to Grand Forks to use their swimming pools and have their birthday parties, but we're going to keep our human waste over here? Do we have our priorities screwed up?
"Can you imagine someone not moving to our community because we don't treat our own wastewater? Can you imagine someone not moving to our community because we don't have a decent swimming pool for their children? Can you imagine someone not moving to our community because we don't have decent police protection or roads to drive on?
"We need to make sure our emotional decisions that require our taxpayers to pony up extra money need to be for the right reasons."
Buckalew suggested that the reluctance could be territorial, not wanting to surrender part of its identity to big brother across the river. The two cities are competitors for residents and businesses.
"It's the elephant in the room," he said in an interview. "Perhaps there have been some past dealings that didn't work out, but they're gone. What I'm trying to say is that big brother is not someone to fear, but someone to work with for the good of both.
"If we were talking about doing the interconnect with Fisher (Minn.), some of the big brother issues go away."
Stauss characterized Buckalew's suggestion about a big brother/little brother rivalry holding back a partnership as "ridiculous."
He added, "Smaller towns who are neighbors to bigger towns always worry about their identity. But the facts are more important than the identity."
Grassel, who has always lived in East Grand Forks and whose father Dick Grassel served on the council for 22 years, said he probably would be considered "the classic East-Sider" with a strong bond to his hometown.
"There is an emotional piece," he said. "You have to look at all of it. But that's not what it's all about."
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