by CHRIS ROGERS
The city of Winona will spend nearly $2.5 million this year extending sewer and water utilities to 42 homes in Gilmore Valley.
The new pipes will serve a portion of the former Winona Township, including Wildwood Drive and Jay Bee Drive, that was annexed decades ago and has never been connected to city utilities. Nineteen homeowners, including some whose septic systems are failing, petitioned the City Council in 2017 to extend sewer and water service to their neighborhood. The other homeowners in the neighborhood — including some whose septic systems are in good condition — may not chose to connect to the sewer and water services for years, city staff acknowledged.
Earlier this summer, the City Council approved a $2,450,000 bid for the project, which will be funded by citizens’ sewer and water fees. The project will not require increasing fees, but will utilize savings from past years’ fees that are earmarked for sewer and water infrastructure.
“I just want to make a note that this is $2.5 million for 40 homes, which is a lot,” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said. “I think it just emphasizes our need to look at infill and higher density within the center core of the city,” he continued. Schollmeier meant the city should focus on promoting dense redevelopment of existing land within the city’s core rather than annexing rural land and extending city utilities to new subdivisions.
Schollmeier also highlighted who is paying for the extension. Homeowners that do choose to connect to the new utilities will pay a $12,000 connection fee. It is not enough to cover the cost of the pipes, but it is something. The majority of the project cost will be funded using the sewer and water fees all Winona property owners pay. People in the core city are paying for this utility extension, Schollmeier said. He added, “Just looking at it, it looks like we’re really outlaying a lot for some really wealthy people.”
Schollmeier suggested that the city should consider increasing its connection fee at some point so that new developments would pay a greater share of the cost of extending utilities to them.
Council member Michelle Alexander opposed that idea, arguing that providing sewer and water is the city’s responsibility and that some residents would not be able to afford higher connection fees.
“This is very expensive,” Schollmeier responded. “$2.5 million — I mean we have a $1-million budget for street work,” he added.
Schollmeier and the rest of the City Council voted for the project, and so far his suggestion to increase connection fees has not gone anywhere. The City Council sets the coming year’s fees every fall as part of its budget. The council’s first budget discussions are coming up in August.