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Without question, Wausau residents have questions about local utility projects, what they will cost and why they are necessary. Opinions are circulating and the projects have become a point of debate in the local elections. Because of this, we need to know the facts of the projects, to make informed decisions when we vote on which candidates will lead our city on April 7.
Wausau’s current council didn’t approve the plans because we love spending money. We studied alternatives, reviewed costs, deadlines and struggled with rate impacts. Realizing the best way to provide safe, reliable service was to proceed with the plans, they were approved.
A key factor is that the city is under a DNR imposed mandate to resolve issues with the drinking water plant no later than December 31, 2022. This isn’t a recommendation, it is a requirement. This is because our storage tank that stores a million gallons of water awaiting distribution at the current plant sits below the groundwater table in a floodplain. This is no longer acceptable because the water in the tank is at risk for contamination.
The price tag to renovate the existing plant is $31 million. If that is done, that plant still cannot accommodate additional DNR mandates. If there are more, the plant would need to be moved in the future anyway. We are expecting more mandates in the future to address PFAS and other environmental factors. The cost to relocate the plant now was $41 million. The new site can accommodate future requirements and serve customers for 50-60 years.
If we spend $31 million renovating the existing plant, and then need to move it later, most of that $31 million goes to waste, and a new plant likely costs more in future dollars than it costs today on top of that. The new plant addresses hydraulic issues at the old plant, improves the treatment process and improves the color and quality of the water we get in our homes. Manganese, Iron and other organics are removed more effectively. These are what make our water appear greenish yellow today in white cups or fixtures.
The wastewater plant is under DNR mandates to address low level phosphorus and has infrastructure that is between 50 and 80 years old. That plant is being remodeled for a cost of about $80 million.
Yes, the costs are shocking numbers, but we are not the only community with these challenges. This is why the State of Wisconsin has two loan funds our water and sewer utility can borrow from, with an interest rate at 1.65% to complete big projects. Wausau had to reserve a spot in advance to borrow from those funds and they are highly competitive. We are approved to borrow this year. If we do not, we lose our reservation. It is very possible these fund sources will not be available to Wausau next year, because larger cities have indicated plans to apply, and the federal government is expected to cut funding to state administered plans by nearly half in next year’s federal budget. Wausau would not outrank larger cities’ projects and likely would not get funded if we do not proceed now. If these projects are delayed, and we end up using revenue bonds to do them later, we will incur much larger interest charges based on higher rates for that financing.
So, for those who ask why both projects need to be done now, the answer is: DNR directives and deadlines. As it is, the new water plant will open in the summer of 2022, just 6 months before the deadline to comply with the water storage requirement.
For candidates running for office who say, “Elect us and we will put on the brakes and re- look at all of this”, I ask those candidates to please also be prepared to lose the funding source we have currently been awarded. Waiting on the project will not remove the DNR mandates and will force more expensive borrowing if the plans do not proceed this year.
What does it mean for ratepayers? There is a candidate running for council who has written in letters to the editor and social media that rates will “double” to scare voters. That claim is not accurate. Cost projections show the average water user can expect an increase of $20 per month in total for both projects together and those increases will be phased in. The water increase will be first, likely about $9-10 per month for the average user, those who use more than average will have slightly higher increases, but bills are not doubling. Sewer rate increases will come later around $10-11 per month, and the council has the ability to implement that a bit later so both do not hit utility bills at once, and we want to do that.
Some candidates feel the public was not brought along or informed as plans were considered. Wausau hosted five public information meetings for the water plant and six for the sewer plant since 2018. Those were separate from seven open committee, commission and council meetings where options were discussed with some covered by local media. Some neighborhood groups have also discussed the projects with alders and guest speakers. Last year, I requested two meetings the city hosted at NTC so residents could get questions answered and get accurate info. Last week, at my request, they hosted another meeting at NTC for any resident to get information.Another is planned for March 18 at city hall for the same purpose; so we are not relying on rumors or misinformation. That meeting will be live streamed and recorded for on-demand viewing for residents who are unable to attend.
At least two candidates accused council members of not representing their districts, putting politics before people or worse. Perhaps they haven’t considered that residents’ opinions and priorities differ between districts? I know for a fact there are times when opinions in my district widely differ from other districts. Most alderpersons receive mixed feedback on issues and work to represent the majority in our neighborhoods.
We might not all agree, but we should not assume council members don’t care or are not working for our districts when it happens. If you have questions or concerns on the projects, please come to the meeting on March 18, contact your alderperson or visit the city’s website to view plans and costs anytime.
Lisa Rasmussen, Wausau
Lisa Rasmussen is president of the Wausau City Council and represents Dist. 7. She is a candidate for Dist. 7 in the April 7 election.