Winona Friendship Center Director Malia Fox and scores of Friendship Center members urged the City Council to make plans for a new senior center in early 2018. A year and a half later, the City Council has yet to reach a decision.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winonans may have to wait a little longer for a decision on the future of the Winona Friendship Center.
The Winona City Council had planned to make a final decision at budget meetings this week on a proposed $5.4-million project to expand the East Recreation Center (ERC) and relocate the Friendship Center there. However, city manager Steve Sarvi cut the project — and millions of dollars of other wish-list items — from his recommended budget and revised the capital improvement program (CIP). Sarvi is not suggesting that the city scrap the project, but he told the council it could be funded by a loan anytime in 2020 and that the council does not need to make a decision on funding the Friendship Center relocation right now. On Monday, City Council tentatively approved 2020 budget sections that do not include the project.
“Patience is a virtue,” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said when asked what he might tell Friendship Center members concerned about the delayed decision. “We’ll get to it. There’s a lot on the plate. The community is moving forward on a lot of different things. This is a very big decision. It’s been going on for a couple of years. I’ll acknowledge that. But when you make big, expensive decisions, they take time.” He added, “I’m confident we’ll move forward with staff recommendations and we’ll probably wind up at the ERC … Sometime next year we’ll be having discussions about how to pay for it.”
While the City Council is delaying a final decision on whether to fund the Friendship Center relocation, city leaders had already settled on a prospective funding source: debt. Because a loan would fund the project, there is no rush to make a decision, Sarvi advised. Whether the council decides now on its plan — to take out a loan in 2020 — or decides on that plan at some point next year, the first loan payment will likely not be due until 2021, Sarvi pointed out. That means the city would not have to tax residents for that loan payment until 2021, and so it is not crucial that the council make a decision before setting the 2020 tax levy. The council just needs to make a decision before setting the 2021 tax levy next fall.
Sarvi added that in 2021 the city expects a major increase to its property tax base — as much as seven percent — thanks to a wealth of recent construction projects. When that new property value comes on the tax rolls, it could help spread out the tax burden of bigger projects such as the Friendship Center relocation, he pointed out.
Budget cuts keep tax hike to 4%
No air-conditioning or sound equipment for the Masonic Temple Theatre, no new restrooms at Prairie Island Campground, no rose garden upgrades, no mountain-biking pump track, no alley repaving, no repairs to the aquatic center pool deck, and no “parklets” and streetscaping for downtown — city staff slashed wish-list items in order to minimize property taxes in 2020.
Last month, city staff had proposed $12 million in capital projects for 2020 including the Friendship Center relocation. This week, when the time came to propose a full budget and taxes to pay for those projects, Sarvi cut that list to $3.6 million. Among the cuts was an $88,000 project to resurface the cratered tennis courts at Sobieski Park, a project the City Council had already pushed back last year.
It is not just parks and arts that were cut. City staff scaled back proposed spending on new vehicles by nearly half, and even trimmed budgets for necessities such as diesel fuel in an effort to keep next year’s proposed tax levy increase to four percent.
Four percent is still a decent increase, but after a series of 5-to-10-percent hikes, it is the most modest tax increase the city has proposed in over five years.
So what is Winona getting for a four-percent tax increase? The budget includes a new firefighter position — part of a gradual increase from two to three firefighters on all shifts at the West Fire Station that will allow firefighters to more quickly and safely search burning buildings for survivors. It includes $130,000 for a new Zamboni at Bud King Ice Arena, $865,000 in general street repaving plus $1 million to overhaul Sioux Street. Funding for sewer and water repairs, vehicle replacements, and a $130,000 faux rock-climbing boulder which is half-funded by donations survived the cuts.
Sarvi also noted that the proposed budget funds higher election administration expenses for the 2020 election cycle and that it includes contractually obligated raises for union employees who will reach new seniority ranks in 2020. At the recommendation of former city manager Judy Bodway, the City Council approved new wage and seniority pay systems in an effort to better retain quality employees by paying them more. The cost of those changes are still being felt as employees move up in the seniority system.
The city also continues to make over $500,000-per-year payments on a set of projects it borrowed money for in 2017, including the Levee Park Gateway and Masonic Temple Theatre upgrades. The Winona Port Authority will soon be done paying off $288,000-per-year loan payments on the Pelzer Street overpass project, but because the Port Authority is more than doubling the amount of taxes it collects for general purposes next year, the total amount of taxes collected for the Port Authority is only decreasing slightly.
Sarvi gave council members options for projects and other budget items they could add to the budget by increasing taxes. After the Winona Post went to press on Tuesday afternoon, the council discussed those options.
“I look forward to the conversation tomorrow night, the shopping list,” Winona Mayor Mark Peterson said on Monday. “There are some things I want that I think are important but I don’t know if they’ll get back in [the budget].”
Other council members were less interested in raising taxes to add projects to the 2020 budget.
“The main thing that was dropped was [repaving] alleys, and we’ve got two alleys in the first ward,” council member Al Thurley stated.
Council member Pam Eyden said she appreciated city staff tightening the budget this year. “I think that’s an important part of the cycle,” she stated. “I think we’re following a real moderate course. We’ve invested a lot, and I think we’re watching how things move.”
Schollmeier said he is interested in seriously discussing a local half-cent sales tax to fund city projects. “Looking at a sales tax over the next year and bonding for the Friendship Center, I think, is a reasonable way to go, and we’ll get our wishes sooner or later,” he stated.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.