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Time is ticking on Afton sewer project

Time is ticking down for the city of Afton to move ahead on its sewer plan or it might lose out on state grants to help fund the project.

The city has until the end the day on June 30 to get certification from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) before beginning the 25-acre wastewater treatment project can begin. If approved after the deadline, the city could lose out on almost $2 million in state grants as the the fiscal year ends at the end of the month.

The city has a pending contractor bid with Ellingson Drainage, which extended the bid until the end of the month as the city awaits certification. As part of the certification process, the MPCA needs to assess the quality of the contractor and approve the buildings, plans and other specifications.

MPCA could approve the project before the meeting, but "until we get that certification, it'd be more risk than we're willing to take," City Administrator Ron Moorse said.

Due to the pinch for time, and uncertainty for potential state funding from Minnesota Legislature after failing to pass the bonding bill, the Afton City Council will be holding a special meeting at 3:30 p.m. June 30 to ensure it gets MPCA authorization on the municipal sewer project.

Private septic systems serve Afton's Old Village, but the systems have caused problems when the St. Croix River floods, and have also led to residents and businesses on smaller plots to build systems closer to roadways, Moorse said. And many of the systems no longer meet state or local standards, he added.

The project was delayed for years after bordering cities St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point raised concerns that the treatment facility might contaminate neighboring wells, as well as have adverse impacts on Valley Creek.

Overall, the project is expected to cost about $4 million, with $1.7 million covered by an MPCA grant with an additional grant for $700,000 from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Moorse said the contractor's bid is slightly less than $2 million.

The sewage project would affect 77 homes and 25 businesses in the 1-mile-by-1/4-mile stretch in Afton's Old Village. Those affected will be assessed for their share of the additional $2 million later this year and will likely be billed depending on the building's volume and water fixtures, Moorse said.

For example, the Afton House Inn, the largest commercial property in the city, would be assessed differently than a home, using criteria set out by the Metropolitan Council, Moorse said. An early draft projecting assessments shows the average residential property would be assessed about $12,000 during a 20-year period, but those costs could be less if the city receives additional funding.

Although Afton city officials said they did not expect additional state funds initially, the state bonding bill included a $220 million plan to modernize aging water infrastructure, including sewers and wastewater.

The bill would have would have covered 80 percent of the Afton's sewer project costs, but a stalemate saw the measure fail at the final moments of session.

"It wasn't a critical situation until we had Legislature closed down without the bonding bill, which affects the amount of funding," Moorse said. "Now it is very important for us to get certification by the 30th."

In recent weeks, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has pushed for a special session to pass the bill, promising to remove portions the bonding bill in order to work with divided lawmakers.

Afton could still receive bonding bill dollars if it's passed after the MPCA certification deadline.

"We'll be celebrating if that happens," Moorse said.