City seeks rate study, mayor testifies on wastewater funding


The City of Seward continues its search for the best way to pay for a new $32 million wastewater treatment plant.

The city council approved an agreement Feb. 20 with Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. to conduct a sewer rate study in connection with the new facility.

City Engineer Mike Oneby said the study will give the city an idea of all costs involved and options on how to pay for the facility.

“Ultimately, the ratepayers must pay for that over a period of time,” Oneby said. “This study allows the council to review some alternatives.”

The study itself will cost $25,000, and the city has already spent $1.3 million on design of the new facility.

City Administrator Greg Butcher said the city is exploring grants or loans through State Revolving Funds or the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Some of these require that you have this (study) completed,” Butcher said. “Not knowing which direction we’re going to go, we felt it was important to have this in-hand. This will cover us through numerous options.”


LB1205 hearing

A bill currently working its way through the legislature could cover $20 million of the tab with unused American Rescue Plan Act dollars, but the city would still have a significant amount to cover.

Sen. Jana Hughes, who represents Seward, introduced the bill as a possible solution. It had a hearing before the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 21.

“The City of Seward did not ask me to introduce this bill,” Hughes said during the hearing. “They had reached out to me asking for ideas on where they could find more funding to cover the massive cost increase they face due to COVID and inflation.”

Hughes called it a “measure of last resort,” noting that the city currently has two choices: to continue with its existing infrastructure which will soon fall into noncompliance with state regulations, or to further raise wastewater rates for users, leaving Seward with the highest sewer rates in the state.

The city already has raised those rates 15% per year for the past two years.

Seward Mayor Josh Eickmeier testified at the hearing, calling the project a “dire issue” as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused supply chain issues and inflation.

“Our $12 million project became a $32 million project,” Eickmeier said.

He said the city recognized the need for a new facility in 2009, then began design in 2019 with the plan to break ground in 2021.

The pandemic threw that plan into disarray, but the project remains ready to submit to the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy for permit approval.

Eickmeier said if funding is found, the city could break ground yet this year. The facility would take another two years to construct.

“We’re a proud community, and I assure you a little piece of me is dying on the inside being here today asking for help,” Eickmeier told members of the Appropriations Committee.

“We’re not asking for a free wastewater facility. What we’re asking for is the $20 million that would help offset the cost that would be the difference from the results of COVID,” he said. “This increase was beyond our control, and now we’re faced with burdening our ratepayers with what would likely be one of the highest wastewater rates in Nebraska.”

Eickmeier said the facility is used by all sectors of the community, and a significant rate increase would affect families, small businesses, industries, nonprofits, schools, hospitals and anyone else living in Seward.

“This impacts everyone,” he said.

The state’s ARPA money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and must be spent by 2026.

That means senators are looking for shovel-ready projects, and Eickmeier said Seward’s project fits the bill as the design work is already 90% complete. It’s just waiting on state approval.

“I know there is a lot of talk about shovel-ready projects that aren’t actually shovel-ready,” he said. “I assure you we have the shovels. We’re ready.”

Jonathan Jank, president and CEO of the Seward County Chamber and Development Partnership, testified on behalf of the SCCDP as well as the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce.

He said the number one question companies ask as they seek to enter a new community is how that community is prepared for growth as it relates to workforce, housing, childcare and utility infrastructure.

“In approximately the last year, we responded to five larger economic development project proposals for the Seward Rail Campus in partnership with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development,” Jank told the committee. “However, we were forced to pass on seven larger projects because we could not meet their utilities demands and/or their workforce needs were too high. All these projects considered multiple states for where they will make their investments.”

He said Seward hopes to announce one more win soon, but bringing the new company to town will require Seward to expand its wastewater capacity.

He said future projects in the areas of agriculture and manufacturing will also require increased wastewater capacity.

“This will help us win future economic development projects on behalf of the entire state of Nebraska,” he said.

Sen. Christy Armendariz of Appropriations asked Jank if those companies contribute to the cost to expand the necessary utilities.

He said such discussions are part of the negotiations process.

“Typically, there are expectations from companies that, essentially, the site is shovel-ready, which means utility capacities are in place, and if you don’t have it as a community, they likely will look elsewhere,” Jank said.

Kris Bousquet, executive director of the Nebraska State Dairy Association, spoke on behalf of the Ag Leaders Working Group, which encompasses representatives from all types of agriculture in Nebraska.

“Right now food companies are looking for future long-term homes for their businesses due to growing product demand,” Bousquet said, noting that the dairy industry alone has seen a average 2% increase in consumption per year. “The number one factor that eliminates a majority of our communities would be the availability of wastewater capacity.”

Hughes does not live within the Seward city limits and would not directly benefit from the bill herself, but she said Seward has invested heavily in growing itself for several decades.

“It has revitalized its downtown area to support a thriving business community. It’s built a rail campus along the BNSF mainline that also serves Lincoln and Lancaster County. It has worked tirelessly to proactively improve its infrastructure in support of the growing number of residents and a growing manufacturing sector, along with establishing a significant agricultural processing presence,” she said. “This would give us the ability to unlock a lot of potential growth for our state.”

No one spoke in opposition to the bill during the hearing.