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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mayor: Voter approval vital for building projects

Friday, April 30, 2010

McCook Fire Chief Marc Harpham, center, and City Councilman Mike Gonzales chat with members of the audience at a town hall meeting about facility needs Thursday night.
(Bruce Crosby/McCook Daily Gazette)
McCOOK, Nebraska -- If there is one message the McCook City Council wanted to get across Thursday night about building a new city municipal building, it's "We want what you want."

"This is not going to be a deal where we ram this down your throat," Mayor Dennis Berry said to about 75 citizens who attended the town hall meeting at Heritage Senior Center. "It's not going to go unless you approve it."

The council and city staff laid out options concerning the construction of two new facilities, one for the fire department and another for the police department/city offices. The results of a straw vote will be discussed at the regular council meeting Monday night, 7:30 p.m. at the senior center.

The council has been considering building new facilities but is still exploring whether to move forward with the projects, how to fund it and whether both projects or just one should be built.

If the council decides to construct one or both buildings, it would be put on the November ballot for voters to approve.

Funding options outlined Thursday night included using city sales tax, property tax or a combination of both.

There would be $1,050,000 available from city sales tax each year. Using city sales tax alone, a $4 million loan could be paid back in seven years at 2.54 percent interest, with estimated annual payments of $630,000.

Using property taxes alone, a $4 million loan will be paid back in 20 years, at 3.9 percent interest, with estimated annual payments of $292,000. This would raise property taxes by $99 per $100,000 valuation, or about $49 per year on property valued at $50,000.

If property taxes alone were used, it would cost about $1.4 million more to pay off, Councilman Mike Gonzales pointed out.

Councilman Aaron Kircher added that if just sales tax revenue were used, a portion of that tax would be "locked-up" or committed, meaning less money for streets, other improvements or for emergencies that come up. There is more flexibility by combining both the sales tax and property tax together, he said.

The $1 million in city sales tax revenue the city has set aside in the budget would be used for "soft costs" of new construction, such as furnishings, said City Manager Kurt Fritsch. Costs of the projects could also be reduced by going back over construction costs to see what could be trimmed, he said.

Before taking questions from the audience, McCook City Fire Chief Marc Harpham and Police Chief Ike Brown explained briefly why new facilities are needed.

The departments inherited the buildings from a power company in the 1950s, and they were not designed for their present functions, Brown said.

Among other issues, repairs to the leaking roof and the parking lot will require about $250,000, he said and cramped space forces interviews to be made in individual offices, often within sight and sound of others.

The limited space and old structure is causing problems for the fire department as well, Harpham said, with little room in the apparatus bay for new, larger equipment, no ADA access and no privacy for staff meetings or training.

Brown said a new facility would allow the public to be served more efficiently, not only now but in the long term.

"We're not looking for a Taj Mahal or anything fancy," he said, but something to provide citizens with quality service.

Several in the audience expressed their discomfort with higher property taxes, with one person telling the council that many in the community are on limited incomes and it feels like "we're being taxed to death on everything."

Another urged the council to go slow with this process.

With the uncertain economic climate, the council needs to make sure whether the new buildings are a want or a need, Dr. Richard Bair said.

"While the amount might not seem great to the council, the principal is very great," he said.

Mayor Berry said he shared Bair's concerns, which is why the council wants citizen input and to put the issue to a vote.

Former City Councilman, Red Willow County Commissioner and current Gazette columnist Dick Trail asked if the new facilties meant the closing of the 96-hour holding cells, now at the McCook Police Station.

If so, a new jail will have to be built and the taxpayers will have to pay for it one way or another, he said.

Mayor Dennis Berry responded that he understood the county's concerns and Councilman Kircher added that the city will be in contact with the county before moving forward with the projects.

But, the council's job is to do what's best for the city and Commissioner's job is to what's best for the county, Berry emphasized.

Police Chief Brown said the current police station could be turned over to the county for holding facilities, without any major changes to the structure and at least for a short term solution.

Mayor Berry indicated that more town hall meetings would be scheduled in the future and urged citizens to contact council members with their opinions on the project.

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