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Wastewater (again), pool on 2012 East Grand Forks City Council agenda

East Grand Forks' long and contentious debate in 2011 about sharing wastewater treatment with Grand Forks ended with an October veto by Mayor Lynn Stauss.

East Grand Forks' long and contentious debate in 2011 about sharing wastewater treatment with Grand Forks ended with an October veto by Mayor Lynn Stauss.

But the problem of handling its sewage isn't settled. The issue will continue this year -- and likely beyond.

"The mayor can veto anything he wants," said Mike Pokrzywinski, a City Council member. "But there isn't a majority on the council that supports redoing our lagoons, either."

The city's lagoons are leaking. However, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hasn't issued an order to fix the problem. So, Stauss and three aldermen favored delaying a decision with the hope that the state will either not mandate repairs or help with the cost of making them.

The council voted to partner with Grand Forks, using an interconnect project that would send the wastewater under the Red River to its water treatment plant. But Stauss needed only two votes to uphold his rare veto and got three -- from Henry Tweten, Greg Leigh and Ron Vonasek.

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But, unless the city's cost is minimal, Vonasek doesn't favor new or repaired lagoons. "If we have to do something big, the interconnect is the way to go in my opinion," he said.

"But my feeling is to go with the lagoons until we're told otherwise. Hopefully, Santa Claus will find his way to East Grand Forks before then."

Scott Huizenga, the city administrator, said he doesn't expect a conclusion to be reached this year. "This will be a multi-year process, both the discussion and any construction phase," he said.

Philosophical differences

The council's division on the wastewater issue is similar to one several years ago when a split council voted to outsource garbage collection to a private company. The difference was that Stauss did not veto that decision.

"Both are an example of a different way of approaching things between the last generation of leaders and the next generation of leaders," Pokrzywinski said. "Similar emotions divided the council then.

"One thought is that it's something the city has always done and if you outsource it, then we're losing jobs and losing control. That's a valid argument if you feel strongly about it.

"But others have come onto council with one of their main agenda items being to look at how we might do things differently, like partnering with Grand Forks when it makes sense. Yes, that will cost money. But it will redirect our public works department to other areas like flood protection."

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Pokrzywinski is joined by Marc DeMers, Wayne Gregoire and Craig Buckalew in favoring shared services. Tweten, a council member for 17 years, leads the opposite view.

"I don't want us to be the city to outsource everything," Tweten said. "Then you lose your identity and you lose control of future costs. With the interconnect, we had no control over the price.

"East Grand Forks should control its own destiny."

Leigh initially favored the interconnect, but changed his position.

"I don't think my decision had to do with losing identity or mistrust (of Grand Forks) or politics," he said. "It had to do with controlling our own destiny.

"Also, some council members like to spend more money than others."

Vonasek, the council member who took the most middle ground on the wastewater interconnect, also is in middle about control: "I'm in favor of keeping the city's identity, but it has to be at the right price."

Pool differences are small

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Council members are less divided about 2012's other major issue -- the pool.

They're unanimous in wanting to fix the existing pool rather than build a new one. They also appear to agree about making the $1.2 million in fixes that a consulting engineer recommends.

There is some disagreement, however, on two details: 1) Do the $1.2 million job at once or do it incrementally over several years; and 2) Pay for it with existing revenues earmarked for building repairs or ask voters to pass a bond issue.

"I don't think the city has an appetite for any bond issue," Stauss said.

Buckalew favors a referendum, citing Grand Forks residents approving the rebuilding of the Riverside Pool even though it sits on the wet side of the dike.

"It's hard to tackle our project $250,000 at a time," Buckalew said, citing the annual amount available in the building fund. "Plus, there's competition for that money because of other buildings and other needs.

"If the constituents pass it, it would mean they also find value in a pool. If voted down, we can at least know what direction the majority wants us to go."

Healthy or unhealthy?

Huizenga and several council members said the interconnect was the most spirited debate they have experienced. Discussions included times when the usually cordial members exchanged heated words, raised voices and interruptions.

"I hope we can respect other people more," said Buckalew, council president. "It never got derogatory, but you hate to see hard feelings. And sometimes you end up building a fence.

"But, we have some strong personalities on the council and you need that."

With the 4-4 split on the interconnect, "words were a little harsher than normal," Stauss said. "There was some disappointment over that."

At the first council meeting of 2012, Stauss appeared to be offering an olive branch to council members. He encouraged cooperation and respectful exchanges. But most council members said spirited exchanges are OK.

"It did get personal at times, but I wasn't upset about it," Vonasek said. "I like to hear how people feel. No doubt about it, you knew where everyone stood after they were done speaking."

Leigh called for more etiquette and decorum. However, Tweten said debates during his 17 years on the council are always contentious "when there's anything that is new or costs money.

"A husband and wife don't always agree. But if they agree 90 percent of the time, they will have a good marriage."

Huizenga said "it's safe to say" the issue's temperature was as hot as he's experienced in his three years on the job, "but overall, it's been a pretty collaborative council. When you're talking $10 million to $15 million, you would expect a lot of healthy discussion."

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to rbakken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: EAST GRAND FORKS
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