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Schools and roads focus of bonding committee visit

MORRIS – School districts who need to make energy upgrades to their building could get some support from the Minnesota Legislature’s Capital Investment Committee during the next legislative session.

During a stop in Morris last Wednesday, members of the committee heard a pitch from Rep. Jay McNamar for a competitive grant program to help rural schools with energy improvement projects.

The visit, part of a statewide tour to look at potential bonding projects for the 2014 legislative session, also included a presentation on local road funding from Stevens County Engineer Brian Giese.

McNamar has been working on his energy grant proposal since the last legislative session. Under his proposal, school districts in Minnesota could apply for a grant or loan to make energy improvements to school buildings. Qualifying districts would need to complete an energy audit, then use the state funding to make the suggested improvements. Districts would then be able to use money from energy savings to pay back the loan.

“There will be, basically, no cost to the school at all except the energy audit,” said McNamar.

McNamar said he planned to ask for $1.5 million bonding money to get the program started, but that the program could easily use more if it’s available.

West Central Area School Superintendent Pat Westby told members of the committee that the program would be helpful to small rural schools like WCA.

WCA serves five rural communities with about 740 students across three campuses. The district’s campus in Barrett was built in 1995, while the two elementary schools date back to the 1930s and 1950s. One of the buildings needs a new boiler, while another needs upgrades to the tunnel system to improve indoor air quality, Westby said.

“We use the majority of our funds and aid to go directly to kids and directly to the teachers and staff who work with those kids,” said Westby. “Unfortunately, things like energy upgrades get slid to the back burner.”

State Rep. Alice Hausman, chair of the Capital Investment Committee, said McNamar’s competitive grant program fit into what the committee has been trying to do and is “an idea worth putting together.”

Another aspect of the committee’s jurisdiction is additional funding for road projects. Stevens County Engineer Brian Giese shared one local project as an example of what can be done with support for the state’s ongoing Local Road Improvement Program.

The Local Road Improvement Program was created by the legislature in 2003 and provides funding for three types of projects: routes of regional significance, trunk highway corridors and rural road safety, Giese said.

“I would encourage you to fund that program on behalf of all counties, cities, townships and other local units of government that are in need of local road improvements,” said Giese.

“Roadwork is something that is really difficult to do contingent on bond funding,” continued Giese. “It’s really hard to plan projects if you don’t know if there’s going to be a bill in the next session.”

Instead, a bonding program like the Local Road Improvement Program can provide “gap financing” to improve planned projects, Giese said.

One example in Stevens County is County State Aid Highway 4, located in the southern part of the county. Stevens County has a 5.7 mile mill and overlay project – pull off the two inches of asphalt and replace it with two inches of asphalt – planned for the road next summer, Giese said.

But in an ideal world, the road wouldn’t just be replaced. It would be improved to address new agricultural uses and new statewide weight standards for roads, Giese said.

The cost of enhancing the project – adding asphalt to increase the weight or widening the segment to add safety features – would be between $200,000 and $300,000.

“Our county next year will be faced with making a decision – do we delay other projects or are we so lucky as to be successful in a solicitation for extra bond dollars and enhance that for our local community as well as the economy of the state,” said Giese.

On Thursday, the committee headed to Willmar and Montevideo to learn about potential improvements to flood protection and the Glacial Lakes State Trail.