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LE CENTER, Minn. - A new report releasedwarns Minnesotans about a problem we don't see, or often talk about, until it's too late, and moves into your home or waterway.

"Especially when that little homeowner has that much water in their basement from sewage, it bothers us," said Curt Roemhildt, public works superintendent for the city of Le Center in Le Sueur County.

From every corner, Le Center gleams of small town charm, but Roemhildt is worried about what is under the streets. Last May, heavy rains flooded the city's aging sewers, bringing sewage backups and a hazard bound to happen again.

"Over a million gallons went into the Minnesota River indirectly, untreated water," he said, pointing to a need to upgrade a system nearly 80 years old.

Minnesota 2020 says all over the state, aging sewage systems have reached a breaking point. The Saint Paul based public policy think tank says one-third of sewer systems around Minnesota are more than 50 years old, with an average life span of a system around 40 years.

"Most people focus on the roads or bridges or power grid, the things you can see. Most people don't think about wastewater, and when you flush your toilet where it goes until something bad happens, said Minnesota 2020's graduate research fellow, and author of the report.

Minnesota 2020 says with interest rates at all time lows, communities should no longer put off investments, adding that projects can provide much needed construction jobs and bidding in rural communities.

Dennison recommends the state should use excess bonding money to fund essential projects in Minnesota's smallest communities, as well as boost the stream of state aid to these towns.

Le Center needs at least 7.5 million dollars to begin system repairs, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) project priority list, which evaluates and ranks around 350 projects across the state according to the greatest environmental need.

MPCA provides communities with low interest financing and grants, but Minnesota 2020 says for the state's smallest towns, it's still not enough, with the lack the population and economy to afford the upgrade.

"We have run out of money, we are stuck in the middle, and have raised the levy as high as we can," said Chris Collins, city administrator. He says Le Center wanted to fund their street and sewer overhaul by assessing 25 percent of the cost to homeowners, and levy the remaining 75 percent of the project.
A group of homeowners are now suing Le Center to protest paying their property tax share.

"Many of the residents, especially with the way the economy is, don't have extra money to pay for stuff to be done. I think the state should be involved in the cost of it if they are the ones making the requirement (for environmental upgrades)," said Gene Lewis, who is one of the homeowners leading the lawsuit. Lewis owns four rental properties, and says the cost to him is too high.

Now facing a court case next month, Collins says the city is facing more than a back up. It's now at a standstill.

"If you drive around our city long enough your teeth will come unglued, our streets are that bad. But you just can't replace the streets, when you tear them up you have to go underneath and replace the 75 to 80 year old infrastructure too," said Collins. "This is the only way we know how to do it but the state doesn't allow for an updated way for us to raise money to do these projects."

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