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What’s Happening with the Levees?

Posted on July 12, 2016

By Marshall White,

Voters will go to the poll’s on Aug. 2 to decide about a quarter of a cent sales tax to pay for Missouri River levee repairs.

The levees protecting St. Joseph and Rosecrans Memorial Airport, as well as Elwood and Wathena, Kansas, have been in need of repairs since the Flood of 1993. That was when the levee protecting the west side of the Missouri River failed, flooding Rosecrans, Elwood and parts of Wathena. That failure is credited with saving south St. Joseph and the Stockyards business district. But the water on the west side of the Missouri River impacted all of St. Joseph.

The aftermath involved people being without water for days, about 2,000 people losing jobs and some losing their homes. The 1993 flood brought about the end of Sherwood Medical and Monfort Pork’s presence in St. Joseph.

The community also had to pay much larger water bills to support an entirely new Missouri American Water Company plant.

The Flood of 1993 showed how Mother Nature can impact this community, said Bob Wollenman, owner of Deluxe Truckstop serving the Stockyards area. Wollenman is also heading up the campaign for the quarter of a cent sales tax on Aug. 2.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done repeated studies on how best to repair and protect the communities and businesses behind the levees on both sides of the Missouri River here at St. Joseph.

In 2011, the Missouri River produced its longest duration flood, destroying farms and communities with waters that remained above flood stage for some 120 days.

A change in the Corps’ policies allowed for numerous emergency repairs during the 2011 flood to ensure the three local levees held and protected the local communities. Missouri River water lapped the sides of the three local levees during those 120 days. Meanwhile, other communities above and below St. Joseph flooded. But the emergency repairs couldn’t address the basic problem of improving the levees.

Local leaders frustrated

Local politicians and business leaders in recent years have worked through the Community Alliance of St. Joseph to show a united front in a push to get levee repairs started. For three years, groups of local leaders have flown to Washington and gone knocking on doors saying repair of the levees was the area’s No. 1 priority.

“It’s all collaboration at its finest,” said Steve Johnston, the Alliance executive director.

Johnston believes failure to repair the levees would have a negative impact on the entire community, not just south St. Joseph and Rosecrans.

“The time is now to move forward as a community,” Johnston said.

Financing those repairs has been the holdup until this year. For the first time, the Corps has some funding to begin repairs. Their current estimate is that to complete the entire levee repair project it will cost $71 million.

The levees currently protect a $2 billion investment in the south St. Joseph flood plain as well as about 6,000 jobs, said Bruce Woody, St. Joseph’s city manager.

Searching for funding

Thanks to legislative support from Missouri’s Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rep. Sam Graves, the federal government allocated $2 million to start repairs in 2016.

The Community Alliance plans to keep pressure on Washington to continue funding the Corps’ part of the repair project over the next four years.

But to keep the project moving forward with a completion of all repairs by the Corps requires local entities be able to guarantee the entire local match for the $71 million levee repair project. The local match of 35 percent figures out to $24.7 million.

Elwood-Gladden Drainage District is committing $3.1 million in cash and in-kind contributions from property owners as its part of the local match for the levee repairs, said Joel Euler, the attorney for the levee district.

And Missouri already has committed $5 million to the entire levee project, said John Grothaus, chief of plan formulation for the Corps’ regional office in Kansas City.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St.Joseph, has led the local effort in the Missouri legislature to ensure the state’s support of levee repairs and the $5 million to pay for repairs.

Buchanan County has saved and budgeted a $1.5 million contribution, said Harry Roberts, the presiding county commissioner.

St. Joseph is committed to contributing $3.2 million, Woody said. And another $960,000 will come from south St. Joseph and Rosecrans Levee Districts, he said.

The quarter cent sales tax proposal

That still leaves a need for $10.9 million, Roberts said.

The county or the city could have borrowed bonds to guarantee the local match.

But those bonds could have cost taxpayers an extra $5 million over 20 years as the principal and interest were repaid, Roberts said. A quarter cent sales tax for no longer than four years would save that estimated $5 million in additional cost, he said.

The sole purpose of the tax will be for levee repairs and 42 percent of the tax would be paid by people who don’t live in the community, Wollenman said. The entire community needs the safety barrier provided by the levees, he said.

“The sales tax appeared to be the least costly way, as well as requiring the shortest time to pay for levee repairs,” Roberts said on behalf of his fellow commissioners.

“I normally don’t support a lot of tax increases, but we have to pass this,” Schaaf said.

Voters will decide Aug. 2 if they agree on the quarter cent sales tax option.

However, the federal funding isn’t on the table for long, Woody said.

If progress isn’t made swiftly in securing the local match, funds could go to other projects in other communities, which is a routine Corps’ practice because the agency deals with all the nation’s waterways.

The Corps’ repair plans

The current plan for the Corps is to start repairs in the 2017 fiscal year.

“We’re getting ready to advertise and award a contract to repair a drainage control structure on the west side near Elwood before the end of this fiscal year,” Grothaus said.

The federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

And the Corps wants to refine their plans for repairing the entire length of the east side St. Joseph levee.

The goal is to bid those east side levee repairs about this time next year, Grothaus said. All the work on the east side levees would be done in fiscal year 2018 if there is sufficient funding, he said.

There is a definite reason for doing the east side repairs first.

This is a unified plan and engineers have to ensure the east bank will hold before beginning the major west bank repairs, Grothaus said. The hope is in 2018 to begin bidding the major west side levee repairs, subject to availability of congressional funding, he said. The goal for the Corps’ Kansas City office is complete and close out the entire levee repair project in 2020 if the Corps receives the necessary congressional funding, Grothaus said.

Continued economic development

The 139th Airlift Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard continues to improve and expand its facilities and programs at Rosecrans. And it appears Missouri’s Army National Guard would like to see development of a facility at Rosecrans for a closer relationship with the Air Guard.

The city also continues to seek to improve the civilian side of Rosecrans, said Abe Forney, the airport manager. The long-term goal is to increase the dollars entering the local economy, Forney said. Civilian air traffic is already larger than military air traffic at Rosecrans.

The South Side Industrial Park area continues to witness investment from new firms like BHJ Inc. and Daily’s Premium Meats and expansion from existing firms.


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