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Council explores ideas for safety center

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

With the intention of getting the best bang for the buck and saving taxpayer money, the McCook City Council continued to explore alternatives for a public safety center at a special meeting Monday night.

With representatives of the McCook Public Schools present, along with Red Willow County Commissioners and about 15 members of the public, the council discussed partnering with other governmental agencies, bonding abilities and numerous other possibilities.

At the close of the meeting, council directed city staff to estimate the space needs and costs of renovating the Nebraska National Guard Amory for a city police department and city offices, ways to lower costs at a new facility for the police and city office building and to place an up or down vote on renovating the West Ward School as a facility on the next City Council agenda.

The Armory, at 407 W. Seventh, will not be in use once the Armed Forces Readiness Center is completed. The new facility will be between U.S. Highways 6-34 and McCook Regional Airport; construction is slated to begin in February.

There are a lot of possibilities, conceded City Councilman Mike Gonzales, "but right now we're sitting on a lot of 'ifs'."

One of those "ifs" concerns how to cooperate with the county. Mayor Dennis Berry asked Red Willow County Commissioner Earl McNutt the needs of the county and McNutt replied that although the county is open to working with the city, without firm numbers in place from the city, it would be impossible to commit at this time.

Still, McNutt said the needs of the county are a sheriff's department and a new jail.

Mayor Dennis Berry later said in the meeting that as a conservative Nebraskan and McCookite, he understood how a six-million-dollar facility can "scare the pants of off most folks" and to add a county jail on top of that would make "most folks scratch their heads."

Still, the needs of a city police and fire department are evident and need to be addressed, he added.

Although Councilman Aaron Kircher and Mayor Berry repeated the need to work with the other governmental agencies, during discussion it was recognized that space needs were limited at the proposed facility and partnering with the county would require a second story, along with county funding for that portion.

Funding from the county would probably come in the form of a bond placed before the voters, McNutt acknowledged.

Voters turned down a combined county jail and city police department bond in 2007. The ballot contained two parts, a bonding amount for a county jail and another for city law enforcement facility, the city portion contingent on whether the county's bond succeeded.

Several reasons for the bond failure were cited, including perceived lack of cooperation between the city and county and multiple issues involved. But as Councilman Jerry Calvin pointed out, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

Calvin shared with the council of one constituent who told him recently taxpayers were not interested three years ago in a jail "and what makes you think we'd vote differently now?"

The issue of partnering with the schools was also raised, concerning shared meeting rooms if the Armory were remodeled.

McCook Schools Superintendent Grant Norgaard said the school would be interested in sharing meeting space but that the school system had its own plans for the Armory if it was offered to them, such as a bus barn or classrooms.

A remodeled Armory may not even be in the cards for some time: it would be offered to the city first, City Manager Kurt Fritsch said, as the city donated land by the McCook airport for the new Readiness Center, but that offer may not be realized until a couple of years have passed.

Another problem with the facility is the same issues that plague current city offices in Memorial Auditorium would again be present, such as deficient insulation that would require upgraded heating and cooling systems.

Remodeling an older building has a cost savings, but also the element of surprise, Fritsch continued, as seen in the former West Ward School.

Walls in the school that architects at first thought could be removed are actually load-bearing and enclose iron columns that hold up an I-Beam that supports the second floor.

Costs of renovating the school for a police/city office building were about $50,000 lower than the cost of a new facility, but those costs savings would be lost with this discovery, Mayor Berry said.

Bonding issues also were clarified at Monday's meeting. If the council chose to use city sales tax to pay back a seven-year, short-term bond for $6 million, it would require $700,000 per year from city sales tax proceeds, about 70 percent of what the city receives from the one-cent city sales tax. The city garners about $1 million per year from the one-cent sales tax and $325,000 from the half-cent city sales tax.

At the council's discretion, a bond paid back with city sales tax could be put to the voters, Mayor Berry said, although that wasn't required. Another option is a general obligation bond, whick must be placed on a ballot and would involve raising the city's property tax.

As the evening progressed, it became evident that although the city, county and school hoped to work together, a way to to mesh space needs of each remained unresolved.

As for saving the taxpayers some money on a public safety center, a long-time McCook citizen clarified the issue.

"I can't say you'll be saving us any money, but you might be spending it more wisely,'" John Hubert told the council.

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While I truly appreciate the consideration that the city is taking on making sure our tax money is spent wisely, especially in these tight economic times, I have to wonder how much more money and time they are going to spend on exploring how many different options. As pointed out in the related article "Fire Barn is Showing it's Age", it is now coming down to a matter of safety and privacy at the Fire Station and Police Departments. I think it's way past time to make a decision and put it on the ballot. And then the voters need to realize that this is not an "option" or a "luxury" but a complete matter of need!!!! I have driven by the Public Safety Center and been in the Fire Station and it is obvious that something needs to happen soon.

Please take the time when this issue comes up on the ballot to make the right decision and get this project going. Those men and women who work in those departments are putting their lives on the line to protect the citizens of McCook and deserve adequate facilities to work in.

-- Posted by susanne_1989 on Tue, Jan 26, 2010, at 10:14 PM

I agree that something needs to be done. It needed to be done years ago, but it seems that the city wants fancy stuff to dress up the city and not support what is needed. The city council has plenty of ideas on the wants of the people, but the needs are what is most wanted. We need a good facility for law enforcement, fire personnel, and ambulance service.We don't need things to look at that makes the community pretty. If as much endeavor was put into developing a public safety center as was put into the Keystone, we would have one of the best facilities within 500 miles of McCook. Lots of money spent and for what?? A building for offices??? Everyone should look at where the money is going. Most of the things should be on the back burner and put the major items in front. That is where the problem is. They haven't figured out what should be in front.

It never ceases to amaze me how blind some people are. Some people jump over a dollar to save a dime and what does that get?? A whole lot of nothing that the citizens can use. The walking trail is good for some, not for others. The Keystone is good for some, not for others. Funds should be used for training our law enforcement, fire dept. personnel, and ambulance crews for the future. This could go on and on.

Incomes are not like they used to be. Expenses are going up like taxes. The 1 and 1/2 percent sales taxes should go for what is needed. Since the stimulus money came in, the sky is the limit. More dreams a showing up and who pays for it??? Everyone in the city. And some can't afford it. They try to, but it puts a hardship on them. Look around and see. A few years back we, the public, were told to conserve on water to save expense. Hmmm?? The rates were raised anyway. I like the way they work. Maybe new blood on the city council will open the eyes of some and make then realize it is time to make a change. A change for the good.

-- Posted by edbru on Wed, Jan 27, 2010, at 8:49 PM

I have been reading with interest the most recent events concerning the public safety center. I grew up in McCook and moved away in the late 80's to start my professional career in another state. However, I continue to keep up on the news and take personal interest in the happenings with the fire and police as my father was once on the force in McCook. I remember in the early 80's they had change in the fire department and remodeled. They said that it was only a temporary thing and they were looking at some land near the library to put a more permanent fire station. I find it hard to believe that nearly 30 years have passed and they still have professional people in that building. It has to be a dinasour and a huge liability to both the city and the dedicated firemen who work there. How much money has the city pumped into this delapitated structure? I say its time to get these dedicated people out of this unsafe structure. Look back in history and do what you said you were going to do in the 80's. Just my personal opinion from a caring and normally quiet ex McCook resident.

-- Posted by Ex McCookite on Wed, Jan 27, 2010, at 9:51 PM

You better believe it but please remember that the effort to make a combined Police/Fire..county & city has been attempted even longer than that. Heres the deal. Right now the city gets 31.9 cents on every dollar of assessed value of your real estate and the county gets 36 cents. Then the city gets an extra 1.5 cents on every dollar spent in McCook that is subject to sales tax. The city dispatches in one manner or another for the city police department, the county sheriff's department, the state patrol, the rural and city fire departments,they also dispatch the ambulance and co-ordinates calls between counties & states(Kansas) when calls come in that are on the border. Strangely enough, both the city and the county law enforcement people have managed to work miracles with badly outdated facilities. The same is true of the City fire and rescue people. BUT, and it is a big but, we still have some amazingly huge egos out there that don't want to share facilities. They have to work together but they don't have to work together? While the City & State Patrol make the undisputed largest number of arrests in Red Willow County, it is the Sheriff's department (county) that is largely responsible for jailing, transporting & feeding these detainees at a huge cost every year that goes to other counties & Kansas who have provided jail facilities. Who is Red Willow County? Well, contrary to popular notions in our city government, the largest amount of residents of the county LIVE IN MCCOOK! And they are paying the combined amount of 67.9 cents on every dollar of value on their real estate PLUS the 1.5 cents extra sales tax that every one else that shops in McCook pays. We the residents of Red Willow County should have outraged response to the idea that a little county of @ 12,000 and a little city of @ 7500 don't need to work together for the common good, not just a notch on the belt of someone's resume who won't still be living here in 10 years. They keep saying that the voters turned this idea down...well for all the naysaying that the city was doing it's no wonder....one might remind them that it took three bond issue votes to finally build the new McCook Elementary. What happened was that once the voting public was convinced that the best plans had been laid for the new school, they passed the ballot. No one is going to pass anything when either the county or the city are bad mouthing the other.

-- Posted by McCook Muse on Thu, Jan 28, 2010, at 5:22 PM

McCook Muse, thank you for the reply. As I've said before, I'm usually not one to reply or become involved in issues that I do not have the entire story or information on. In this case, I don't have all the information and what you have provided is helpful. I appreciate that. After looking at it, the question that I have is I've heard and read about the city police/county law enforcement jointly sharing space and the city/county offices sharing space and it seems that this question is still being explored and there are still many variables to be explored. However, again from what I'm reading, it seems that the fire station is going to be a stand-alone facility. The folks at the fire department have done their homework and have a very deliberate plan that has been to the professional planners and it is all but ready to go. I haven't seen anywhere that includes the fire department in the same building with the other potential agencies being mentioned. I could be wrong but if this is the case, I say take advantage of the construction costs and go build the fire station. If I'm wrong, I would appreciate any input or corrections that you may have. It's hard to keep up when I'm hundreds of miles away from my childhood home. Thanks again.

-- Posted by Ex McCookite on Fri, Jan 29, 2010, at 9:47 AM

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