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Out with the old, in with the new?

St. Croix County might get out of the water business if a joint project with the city of New Richmond materializes.

The county's Building Facilities Long-Term Planning Ad Hoc Committee met with New Richmond officials Thursday to discuss a possible partnership to deal with the aging water system that serves the St. Croix Health center campus on the northwestern edge of town.

The county property has an old water tower and pipes that provide water to the nursing home, Health and Human Services offices and St. Croix Industries building.

The existing water tower also has several issues that need to be addressed, including lead paint that needs to be removed on the exterior of the structure, according to Building Services Manager Art Tobin.

There is also an ongoing bacteria issue in the health center's water system, Tobin noted, which only becomes a concern when the city isn't chlorinating its water. With the system's "dead ends," water that isn't moving constantly can be breeding grounds for bacteria, he explained.

"It's never gotten to an unsafe level," Tobin said. "And now that the city is treating the water 12 months of the year, we're not too worried about it."

Still, it's another factor in the county's wish to connect directly to the city's water system, he noted.

Maintenance and improvements to the tower and current system could cost the county more than $400,000, according to County Supervisor Daryl Standafer, Hudson.

The county would like to do away with the water tower system, Tobin reported, but the city's water main that pumps water to the existing tower is not adequate due to limited water pressure. Either a nearby water tower or added pressure is needed to allow for emergency response to the campus is case of a fire, and to efficiently operate the sprinkler systems in the buildings.

County officials are wondering, Tobin said, if the city might be open to a discussion about how to deal with the water issues.

Standafer said early estimates provided by consulting engineering firm Short Elliot Hendrickson indicate it could cost about $300,000 for the county to remove the existing water tower and fully connect to the New Richmond city water system.

If the county went that route, Standafer said, the water issues would likely be solved. If the county continued using its current system, there would be ongoing maintenance costs to the water tower and pipes that would cost taxpayers money.

"We need to address this issue in the short term," Standafer said. "And it's pretty clear that the lower number ($300,000) is pretty attractive to the county."

Even though the city has been studying the installation of a new water tower for a couple of years, City Manager Dennis Horner said the plan was to wait another five years or so to see if community growth will require added water supply.

Horner and other city officials said they would be open to studying the idea if one or two federal and state grant programs will pay for a portion of the project's cost. The new tower, if installed, would provide greater water pressure to the northern and western edge of the city, including the St. Croix Health Center campus.

Dave Carlson, economic development specialist with SEH, said if the city and county submit an application for a Safe Water Program grant or a Community Service Block Grant, their chance for success is much greater than if either of them apply on their own.

In fact, the city's application for a Safe Water Program grant last year failed to gain enough "points" to be seriously considered for funding.

"If you work together, we might make it to the fundable range," Carlson said. "It could potentially move you to the top of the pile."

If the county and city receive a Safe Water grant, the program would cover up to 30 percent of the overall cost of the project. A block grant might cover as much as 25 to 50 percent of the project.

That would be a significant savings to county and city taxpayers, Carlson noted. He estimated that the city's cost for a new water tower could be as much as $1.5 million and the county's cost of removing their water tower and hooking up to the city's system could run about $300,000.

"It's pretty clear that the taxpayers are the biggest winners in this," said Fred Horne, New Richmond mayor and County Board superintendent. "We fully want to work with the county on this."

County representatives agreed to bring the water issue to the County Board for its support of a joint grant application. The city, which has already applied for the Safe Water Program, will amend its application to add the county as a partner if those elected officials approve of the move.

The more difficult issue, St. Croix County Administrative Coordinator Chuck Whiting said, is paying for the remaining cost of the project. If the water project can be accomplished in 2011, he said, the county could include funding in its budget.

Horner said the city would like to delay the cost of the project as long as possible as well, but that the availability of grant funds could make installation of a water tower over the next year a smart idea.

According to preliminary plans, the new tower could be 120 feet high with a 250,000-gallon capacity. The tower could be located on land near The Links golf course, or it could be placed on county property near the health center.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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