Coalition still wary of challenge to St. Croix bridge

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 10, 2013 - 8:15 AM

Washington County and Stillwater contributed public funds to help promote the bridge even after the huge project was approved a year ago. Now Oak Park Heights is being asked for $3,000.

The group promoting a new St. Croix River four-lane bridge continues to seek taxpayer-funded contributions a full year after Congress approved construction of the controversial project.

In the most recent actions, the Oak Park Heights City Council was asked to donate $3,000 to the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, a lobbying organization of government and business leaders, and Bayport was asked for $1,000.

Those requests come in addition to $10,000 donated by St. Croix County, Wis., last summer, $15,000 from Washington County in September and $10,000 from the Stillwater City Council that same month.

In asking for public money, bridge coalition representatives have cited concern that someone will try to delay the $676 million project as happened with two Sierra Club lawsuits since 1996. But the difference now is that Congress exempted the bridge project from the federal law that protects the St. Croix from development -- the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act -- and President Obama signed the legislation into law.

Chad Kulas, a public affairs consultant hired to represent the coalition, said last week the project wasn't a foregone conclusion and that money was needed to rally supporters and promote the bridge. The coalition has received 13 contributions from local governments over time, he said, in addition to private donations.

The Oak Park Heights City Council tabled the bridge coalition's request after one member, Mark Swenson, said he wanted to make sure the city didn't repeat mistakes made in Stillwater in 2011. That city ran afoul of the state auditor after attempting to donate $80,000 from a tax-increment financing fund and without a contract. Both actions were illegal, the auditor's office determined.

A majority of the Stillwater City Council has voted for the donations with the expectation of pushing commuter traffic out of downtown and onto nearby Hwy. 36, which runs through Oak Park Heights. Once the new bridge opens in 2017, the Stillwater Lift Bridge would close to vehicles and become part of a 4-mile trail.

Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber said she wanted to hear an upcoming staff report on the donation request before making a decision. "We don't have a blank checkbook. We have to be responsible for the public funds," she said.

McComber said she was aware of coalition concerns that someone would stop the project but hadn't heard any specific attempts identified.

"We know there are possibilities out there of opposition still," Kulas said, citing a recent radio report that mentioned a possible court challenge. The coalition will continue into April when construction begins, he said.

Three cities in St. Croix County also contributed since Congress approved the bridge: the Town of Somerset, $750; the Village of Somerset, $2,500, and the City of New Richmond, $10,000.

Fears of an 'activist judge'

The letter appealing for money was signed by coalition co-chairman Ken Harycki, who also is Stillwater's mayor. Harycki voted in favor of the $80,000 donation and also his city's subsequent donation.

"While we remain optimistic construction can begin, opposition still hopes for delays, as in the past when we repeatedly have seen efforts to replace the old lift bridge get stopped at the last minute," he wrote. "Stopping things now would increase both costs and the chances the project never occurs."

In all, donations of public money to the coalition from both sides of the river now total almost $75,000 -- a sum that doesn't include about $40,000 the city of Stillwater forfeited in penalties after the coalition returned the disputed $80,000. The request in September to donate money again drew a sharp exchange between Harycki and another council member at the time, Micky Cook.

"Why in God's name are we spending another dime on this?" asked Cook, who frequently clashed with Harycki over bridge spending.

"Because they're still out there," Harycki replied. The mayor said threats of a "frivolous lawsuit or activist judge" could block construction.

Another council member at that time, Jim Roush, said the donation amounted to "double taxation" of Stillwater residents because Washington County also had donated. He and Cook voted against the $10,000 donation, which was $5,000 less than the coalition wanted.

The city of New Richmond, Wis., has also been a donor, and Washington County made an earlier donation of $10,000.

"They shouldn't be donating to groups that have a political agenda like a bridge," said Matthew Behning, a Stillwater watchdog of local government spending. "That's outrageous. They're going to use that money to create ads that are pro-bridge. That's an irresponsible use of tax dollars. They're just funneling money for these projects."

Last month, the coalition requested $1,000 from Stillwater Township but was turned down. "They need to do a better job of explaining how township residents benefit," said Board Member Linda Countryman. "We looked at that and found it wasn't well substantiated."

Gary Kriesel, a Washington County Board member who had supported previous donations, said he wasn't aware of specific attempts to delay the bridge and doubted the County Board would vote for another donation. "I think everything's moving along fine as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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