In an email labeled as a news release, Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (PMRNRD) board member Mark Gruenewald claimed using the district's remaining bonding authority and constructing three dams would cost taxpayers $76 million.
The PMRNRD covers six eastern Nebraska counties, including Washington County.
Gruenewald sent the email to the Enterprise on Monday.
However, John Winkler, PMRNRD general manager, said any tax impact claims made by anyone are "purely speculation" since the construction and bonding referenced by Gruenewald hasn't been approved and would only be approved by board members' majority vote sometime in the future.
"As you might imagine, everyone has their opinions," Winkler said. "Obviously this 'release' was not sanctioned or approved by the NRD Board of Directors and is therefore not the official position of the Board of Directors but the opinion of one member."
In stating that taxpayers could be on the hook for $76 million, Gruenewald was adding two numbers together — construction costs for three dams, which have not been approved, and PMRNRD's unused bonding authority.
Gruenewald, who represents subdistrict 9 covering parts of Douglas and Sarpy counties, said in the release that using bonds, which the PMRNRD has had the authority to use since 2009 and has used for past projects, was "unnecessary to begin with" and wastes taxpayer money. He later added, "Eliminating needless projects in the proposed budget can return monies to the taxpayer."
Gruenewald did not respond to requests for an interview.
In his emailed release, Gruenewald called it "backdoor chicanery" that multiple PMRNRD board members voted to "expand the NRD's bonding authority," undermined a 2016 measure where the public voted against increasing the rate at which PMRNRD could bond.
It is unclear to what Gruenewald's statements were referring. The 2016 voting measure was to decide if PMRNRD could double its bonding authority from 1 cent to 2 cents per $100 of valuation. It failed to pass.
This May, however, the PMRNRD received a five-year extension on its bonding authority when Legislative Bill 177 passed the Nebraska Legislature and was signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. PMRNRD's bonding authority was originally approved for 10 years in 2009. It is the only NRD in the state with bonding authority.
Per LB 177, the PMRNRD can bond up to 1 cent per $100 of its district's land valuations. According to PMRNRD's 2020 budget proposal, land valuations for the district this year are about $7.5 billion.
"The NRD is compliant with all relevant bonding statutes," said Winkler, calling any claim made otherwise “absurd.”
Gruenewald also said the PMRNRD could save money by eliminating all associated costs for the three dam sites that have been considered for flood prevention in the past — dam site 7 just south of Bennington; dam site 12 north of Elkhorn and state Highway 31, just west of state Highway 36; and dam site 19 just north of Gretna.
In his release, Gruenewald said that the PMRNRD has included $5,000 for dam site 7, $25,000 for dam site 12 and $770,000 for dam site 19 in its 2020 budget proposal. He indicated the total cost of constructing the three dams could be $42 million dollars.
None of the three sites, however, have been approved by PMRNRD Board of Directors, nor has PMRNRD purchased any land for them.
"As far as what projects get built is a decision of the majority of the board of directors and will be made in the future," Winkler said. "How that impacts future bonding and taxing issues is purely speculation at this point in time and no one can accurately state what future decisions may be made or their impact on the district."
Gruenewald noted that dam sites 7 and 12 were considered unviable for flood prevention measures during a July meeting where Corps and PMRNRD members discussed a multi-year joint study aimed at determining possible flood prevention measures in the Papillion Creek Basin.
Tiffany Vanosdall, a Corps project manager, said during the July meeting that the Corps was looking at all flood control prevention projects considered in 1968 and 1980 studies for the basin. She said the Corps was only going to recommend projects it deemed feasible via a cost-benefit analysis. Dam sites 7 and 12 were not considered alternatives after an initial cost-benefit analysis, she said, but dam site 19 is still being considered.
A complete, preliminary proposal for flood prevention measures from the joint study is expected sometime in October. At the July meeting, Vanosdall said any flood control measures removed from consideration at that time would not be suggested by the Corps in the future. Projects completed through the study could be jointly funded.
Subdistrict 1 board member Ted Japp,representative of all or parts of Washington, Burt, Dakota, Douglas and Thurston counties,said any projects that would be complete, and their associated funding, will be determined from studies like the one with the Corps and votes from the board, neither of which has occurred.
"I'm not a huge advocate of bonding authority either. If it's something that is absolutely needed, I guess you have to take a hard look at that," Japp said. "There haven't been any firm decisions as far as coordination of efforts between the NRD and the Corps of Engineers regarding these dams at this point ... We're looking to get the best bang for the buck for the taxpayers. If we can save them money by not doing a project or two, certainly if the Corps doesn't recommend it, we'll certainly try to go along with some of their recommendations."