by CESAR SALAZAR

 

The Winona City Council reviewed possible projects and expenses that the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) could fund, such as HVAC for the Masonic Temple. There was also some discussion about whether funding the Alternate Response Team (ART) with ARPA would be a feasible option for the city budget.

The estimated total received by the ARPA funding would be approximately $2.8 million, while the estimated total cost of the suggested projects and expenses is approximately $3.37 million.

According to Winona City Manager Chad Ubl, his staff will begin to look at the capital improvement plan (CIP) in early May and would present the CIP in late May or early June to the council to help approve some of the ARPA projects and expenses.

“It’s really important that the next step be that the council see the CIP items for 2023 in conjunction with the ARPA funding,” Ubl said. “That's the next piece that needs to be looked at … and [a] staff recommendation can be presented at that point.”

The ARPA funding would be a one-time funding source, so the council would have to weigh the options of one-time funding versus long-term expense projects. The argument raised by Ubl is that while ARPA would fund this year’s hiring of two staff and their salaries for ART, next year’s budget would have to find an alternate funding source. Ubl suggested that the ART shouldn’t be funded with ARPA but rather be included in the regular budget.

ART is a proposal by the city to see social workers respond to some emergency calls. It is a plan to help individuals going through a mental health crisis, with the idea that police officers may not always be the best responders in such a scenario.

“We’ve got to be careful so if we do fund a [proposal], we fund it right now, but maybe it needs long-term funding, and we may not be able to do that,” City Council Member George Borzyskowski said in an interview, “I’m a strong supporter of reinstating the Alternate Response Team ... I would like to see that funded. We can fund it one time, but what do we do down the road? We need to be careful so that whatever we spend this money on, we are getting our best bang for our dollar because once that project is done, that money is gone. We just can’t be going on and taking on things that are a long-term commitment.”

City Council Member Eileen agreed she’d be fine with funding the ART from another source, possibly by raising the tax levy. Ubl estimated a 2 percent tax levy increase could fund the program.

“I definitely want to do whatever needs to be done to get that project back up and running,”  Moeller said. “I do think it’s really important that the city roll [the ART] into the regular budget.” She said she’d support a tax levy raise. “I think it is vital to the health of community members and it should be viewed as an essential piece of our city government,” she said.

“It’s certainly a possibility,” Borzyskowski said in regard to raising the levy. “It certainly would be up for discussion. That whole list of items, they’re all going to bring up a very good, interesting discussion. We need to move carefully as we move down the road; we’re looking at perhaps which would not be funded by [ARPA].”

The biggest item on the list is the Masonic Temple’s HVAC needs. The project requires an estimated $1.8 million. City Council members Michelle Alexander and Moeller supported the proposal strongly, stating that it’s been a project the Masonic Temple has been needing for a substantial amount of time.

The HVAC project is in this year’s budget, but Ubl said it might not happen this year. Ubl brought forward that at this time of year, the proposal could see a lack of suitable bidders and materials for construction, leading to a delay of the project.

While the project was estimated at an earlier time, the project cost could be much higher now, Ubl said. “We’re concerned that when we go up for bid — and much like we’re seeing with other projects — the cost of materials and cost of labor is going up,” Ubl explained.

Ubl explained that contingencies were put in place in case the project cost was higher, but the project now could potentially not be covered by these contingencies. Any higher costs or shortcomings would need to be funded by other sources, he said. “If the council says yes to allocating the $1.8 million from the ARPA and the costs come in higher, much like any other project, a decision needs to be made on how would the shortfall be funded,” Ubl said. “It could be through a tax levy, reserve, a debt issuance, or a bond. We have to look at the financial tools available to us to see how we would want to fund that shortfall.”

All of the proposed projects and expenses were vetted by financial advisors from consulting firm Baker Tilly to verify they were eligible to be funded by ARPA.

Some of the items listed included one-time expenses, such as items for the Winona Fire Department including new self-contained breathing apparatuses, turnout gear, and air bottle replacements, which were due to be purchased one way or another. Ubl explained that rather than fitting the required $423,000 within the city budget, the items could be purchased with no additional cost to Winona taxpayers with ARPA funds.

Some other items on the list included funding for voting booths, a housing rehab program, a Third Street beautification program, extended library wifi, bandshell upgrades, and lost revenue recompensation for the Parks and Recreation department.

Ultimately, the list presented to the council on the evening of April 18 was a suggestion of possibilities of what the ARPA funds could be used for. “Really, much like our CIP, we’re using it as a planning document,” Ubl said. “You see a total cost of $570,000 more than the estimated funding we’re going to receive. This list of items needs to be refined during our CIP process … We wanted to at least show the council the items we were considering and I wanted to present to the council that we are looking at cross-departments.”

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