More work – Capital improvement discussion starts

Northfield’s finance director, Kathleen McBride, deserves a lot of credit for dragging the Council toward a capital improvement planning process where projects are assessed rationally, scheduled sensibly, and funding sources are identified…instead of listing possible projects with largely fictional “placeholder” dollar amounts and hoping for the best.  The 2010-2014 CIP discussion begins Monday at the Council worksession.

By now, Northfield folks should know that the 1st big ticket item is the Safety Center. See the official city information here, Northfield News here (the most recent story), Locally Grown here.   The draft CIP numbers for the project are $1,020,000 in 2010 and $9,180,000 in 2011 for design and construction (exclusive of land acquisition) of a new joint police/fire Safety Center as per the Task Force recommendation.  In the alternative, $3,200,000 is included for renovation if a new facility is not constructed.    This is one of those molar-grinding sort of issues.  On one hand, public safety is important – life and death important sometimes – so I would like to make the choice which leads to the most effective functioning of our police and fire departments (and also cost effective functioning).  On the other hand, the Council has been bombarded with numbers, opinions, and paper but I can’t tell where the numbers come from (and they are disputed by various people), can’t sort out the opinions (because I’m no expert on public safety or construction costs) and usually can’t find the paper I might need because there is so much of it.

Beyond the question of what should be built and where, the Council also needs to decide whether to put this issue to a referendum so you voters can weigh in on the project and whether you want your taxes to increase to pay for it.   I’m cautiously anti-referendum…while asking voters’ consent to tax increases has common sense appeal, I think elected representatives are elected to make these decisions and (one hopes) have been given and have understood the information, heard and analyzed public opinion, considered the fiscal state of the city and then can act for the common good.  I’ll plead guilty to all charges of idealism with the intent to commit rational decision-making.

The 2nd major facility improvement being considered is the Library expansion. I’m not neutral about the Library – I think the Northfield Public Library is one of the City’s real assets.  Despite being cramped (just try to shoe-horn yourself into the children’s area on a Saturday), cutting their budget and staff, having Rice County lower its funding, and reducing hours (the Library won’t be open Sunday afternoon for budget reasons) the Library continues to post record circulation and usage numbers.   But that’s not all:

  • Children’s programming has been so successful it exceeds the occupancy limits of the Library meeting room
  • Booker the Book Bus takes the Library out to the community
  • the Library has added more job search and career resources to meet needs in tough times
  • more Spanish language materials have been added to serve our Latino residents
  • the active Friends of the Library raises money to support library programs
  • the Library Board has been working for at least 5 years planning for expansion (see the FAQ and all the long range planning documents), gathering public input, educating the City Council, collaborating with the NDDC and EDA to consider how a larger library downtown can also be a catalyst for adding parking and revitalizing the north end of Division Street.

Indeed, something like the Library’s intentional, detailed, collaborative planning process (and public education about its planning process) could have been helpful with the Safety Center, although I’m not sure how this might have worked. Unlike public safety, the Library has had the benefit of strong leadership on the Library Board aided by skilled Board members who have done the networking and educating – a good example of highly effective citizen board.   And the Library is a facility which many of us visit and use often.

The Library expansion bottom line from the draft CIP is $10,000,000 (again exclusive of land acquisition) with $900,000 pencilled in for 2012 and the remainder in 2013.   The Library Board has also issued an RFP for a fund-raising feasibility consultant to help determine how much private funding might be reasonable to expect for the project.

Beyond these two big projects, the CIP also deals with the ongoing investment Northfield must make in its infrastructure: streets, sewer, water, sidewalks, etc.    Some proposed projects depend on grants (such as pedestrian improvements to Highways 3 & 19) while others are part of the City’s on-going maintenance and repair.

Finally, there’s the “parking lot” which has nothing to do with constructing new parking (although $50,000 is included for 2010 for a study for a possible downtown parking ramp).  This is where possible projects without identified funding sources are parked – broadband, Mill Towns trail repair, a couple of County road projects.

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