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.