Sarpy County says sewer funding plan is necessary for developmentJanuary 12, 2018
It’s a common gripe in Sarpy County.
Ask a city or county official about what’s needed to keep the state’s fastest growing county booming and they’ll respond, “You see, there’s this ridgeline ... .”
The natural ridgeline they’re referring to cuts roughly east and west across the middle of Sarpy County, and officials say it’s an impediment to development and growth.
North of the line, land drains to the Papillion Creek and a sewer system is in place to send wastewater north.
But south of the ridge, the land drains to the Platte River and there is no sewer system to serve potential businesses and housing developments.
That lack of infrastructure is blocking progress and growth in one of the few places still available for development in the metropolitan area, according to a Sarpy County state senator.
State Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue has introduced legislation to make it easier to pay for a sewer system that would be built in stages and could eventually cost $220 million.
“We have an area that’s prime for growth that’s not living up to its potential because it lacks basic infrastructure,” Crawford said.
Her Legislative Bill 253, which is scheduled for debate by the Legislature on Thursday, would allow cities and villages to form a public agency with a county to oversee an entire region’s sewer system. In Sarpy County, it would involve all five cities and the county.
The new sewer lines and water treatment facilities south of the ridgeline would be financed by sewer and connection fees paid by new homeowners and new businesses, Crawford said. The new countywide sewer agency could also levy property taxes, she said, but would use that authority only if sewer fees became inadequate.
Officials in Sarpy County have been studying the issue for almost 10 years and have been lobbying in support of Crawford’s bill.
But there’s a sense of urgency for the legislation as the pace of development has picked up, and as the county prepares for the eventual construction of a freeway along Platteview Road, which crosses the southern portion of the county that now lacks sewers.
Just this month Facebook announced a 146-acre campus with two 450,000-square-foot buildings and a 70,000-square-foot administrative building at Nebraska Highway 50 and Capehart Road in Papillion. Sarpy County has also added data centers from Fidelity, Yahoo, Cabela’s and insurance group Travelers in recent years.
Papillion Mayor David Black said he estimates that Papillion will run out of land for development in the next five to seven years if the bill does not go through. Only about 40 percent of Sarpy County is developed, Black said, but the growth of Papillion, Springfield and Gretna depends on sewer infrastructure south of the ridgeline.
Crawford specifically pointed to potential growth areas along Highway 50, around the Nebraska Crossing Outlets and along the projected U.S. 34 freeway on Platteview Road.
Said Black, “If you don’t have sewer infrastructure in place, land is not developed.”
If the countywide agency is created, the first phase of work is set to begin in 2019. There are four separate phases, with the final one set to begin in 2044.
If the agency is not created, then it’s back to the drawing board for the cities and county.
Wastewater currently generated south of the ridge is handled by several small, private treatment facilities or by a small facility owned by the City of Springfield. Most people living south of the ridgeline have septic systems.
In the case of Facebook, the county is doing some sewage gymnastics. Because there is no sewer system where the new Facebook campus will be located, a $690,000 pump station is being built to pump sewage north over the ridge line. Sewer fees from the company and a $75,000 state economic development grant are expected to cover that cost.
Black said the countywide agency would allow representatives from all five cities and the county to have input on the development of the sewer system.
The prospect of a new property taxing entity for sewers raised questions for some members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. The committee, which is chaired by a Sarpy County senator, Jim Smith of Papillion, voted 5-0 to advance LB 253 in February. But three lawmakers abstained.
One was North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, who said he was concerned that such a taxing entity would be formed and embark on a pricey project, without a vote of the people.
Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen, who was also “present and not voting” on advancement of the sewer bill, said he was concerned that homeowners far from the location of the new sewers would get stuck paying the bill if the housing market takes a downturn and sewer fees are insufficient to pay debts.
“What happens if things go bad? Who’s on the hook for the bill?” Friesen asked.
Crawford said residents of La Vista and Bellevue, which already have sewers, could be asked to pay some of the cost of the new sewers in the southern part of the county. But they would also get some benefit by expanding the county’s tax base and possibly lowering their own taxes.
She pointed to estimates being distributed by backers of the bill. Those project $19 million in additional property tax revenue for cities in Sarpy County and $21 million extra for the county if areas south of the ridgeline are developed.
That same pamphlet, generated by Sarpy County Administrator Mark Wayne, projects an increase in sales tax revenue of $15 million for the county and $45 million for the state.
And Sarpy County Board members Brian Zuger and Don Kelly ask that the senators look at the county’s track record on taxing.
A bill passed in 1994 gave Sarpy County the power to levy a special tax or issue revenue bonds to build and operate a sewer system in rural areas.
Fred Uhe, spokesman for the county, said the county has never used the levy to build or operate sewers in the county. Instead, the county used a different approach, issuing bonds backed by the taxing authority of the county to pay for sewer construction. Those bonds were paid off from sewer connection fees and not property taxes.
Zuger and Kelly said they’re not interested in raising taxes for residents of Sarpy County but think getting a sewer system to the southern half of the county is critical to Sarpy’s future.
“It’s true, this bill will give us the ability to levy property tax,” Kelly said. “But past performance has shown we have never done that.”