Assistance for combined sewer overflow projects debated

Municipalities undergoing select sewer improvements could apply for state assistance under a bill debated on general file April 5-6.

LB682, introduced by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, would offer state assistance to finance the construction, acquisition or improvement of sewer, natural gas and water cast-iron infrastructure. Assistance would be calculated based on the amount of state sales tax collected from increased fees and charges to complete combined sewer overflow, natural gas and water projects.

Mello said the city of Omaha will undertake what will likely be the largest infrastructure project in the state to turn its combined sewer system — which discharges raw sewage and stormwater into the Missouri River during wet weather events — into a separate sanitary sewer system. The $1.7 billion project will be financed by increased sewer fees, he said, with the average ratepayer experiencing a fee increase of more than a 200 percent.

“[LB682] is trying to stave off what will likely be the largest tax increase in the metropolitan area,” Mello said.

LB682 would use a turnback of state sales tax to mitigate costs borne by Omaha ratepayers during the life of the project by $40 million, Mello said. Other cities with federally mandated combined sewer overflow projects also could receive state assistance, he said, naming the city of Plattsmouth as an example.

Papillion Sen. Jim Smith said the bill is needed to retain individuals and businesses in the metropolitan area that are considering relocation due to imminent sewer fee increases.

A Revenue Committee amendment would restrict the scope of the bill to combined sewer overflow projects undertaken as part of a long-term control plan approved by the state Department of Environmental Quality. Cities would be required to dedicate any increased local option sales tax revenues generated from increased sewer fees to the combined sewer overflow project in order to receive state assistance.

Mello offered an amendment, adopted 33-1, that changed the date after which cities of the first class, cities of the second class and villages could apply for state assistance from July 1, 2013, to July 1, 2011. His amendment would retain the July 1, 2013, date for cities of the metropolitan class and cities of the primary class to apply for assistance.

The change would allow the city of Plattsmouth to take advantage of the state assistance offered under LB682, Mello said.

Elk Creek Sen. Lavon Heidemann spoke in opposition to the bill, saying its impact to the general fund could increase from $3 million a year to $5 million over time. He also questioned whether the bill would help only the cities of Omaha and Plattsmouth. Many small towns have completed federally mandated projects without state assistance, he said.

Kearney Sen. Galen Hadley opposed LB682, saying the city of Omaha has known for 20 years that improvements were needed to prevent the dumping of sewage into the Missouri River. The improvements could have been completed by now, he said.

Omaha Sen. Brenda Council said Omaha has undertaken smaller projects to address sewer overflows, adding that the federal government directed the city to separate its sewer system only three to four years ago. The average monthly sewer fees could increase by $50, she said.

The Legislature adjourned before voting on the committee amendment or the bill.

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