Citizens group threatens to trigger bond referendum
ELY – “I feel you are holding us hostage.”
That was the reaction from some on the Ely City Council Tuesday night when a citizens group threatened to trigger a referendum on the capital improvement bond issue for a new library.
Phil Hogan addressed the council for the Citizens for the Community Center group.
“The City Council has voted to proceed with a new library building. Our citizens committee disagrees with this action,” he said in a written proposal.
“A petition is being planned to request a referendum on the bond issue which, if voters agree, could stop action on both the City Hall and the new library,” he said.
A mere 105 signatures are needed on a petition to trigger a referendum.
Citizens for the Community said they agree with the city’s proposed action to remodel City Hall and do not favor an “expensive and unnecessary” referendum.
“However,” Hogan said, we see no way to encourage the City Hall activity to proceed while still calling for a referendum on the library. We consequently have a compromise to propose.”
The capital improvement bond approved last month calls for the issuance of $3.2 million in bonds for both City Hall improvements and new library construction.
The committee said they would agree to discontinue all referendum action if the council would agree to the following process, including a formal vote to accept the compromise:
‰ The city would proceed with action on the bond and City Hall activity as planned, but agree to halt all activity on a new library until the following actions have occurred (estimated to be less than six month):
‰ wait for the $5,000 Rova study to be completed (five weeks at the minimum);
‰ wait for the new $10,000 usage study to be completed;
‰ wait a period of an additional month to allow all parties time to review the study reports;
‰ allow the citizens committee to make a formal presentation to the City Council of the committee’s position after reviewing all data;
‰ the council agrees to take all new information into account and take a new vote on the council’s final library plan;
‰the committee agrees to abide by that vote no matter its outcome and not to take any further referendum action about the library.
“We’re concerned that if the library leaves the Community Center, that will be the death knell for the Community Center,” Hogan said. “Lots of people disagree with that but that is our position.”
The proposal also indicates that during the process, the committee may provide more information to the public and they will also begin a preliminary search for possible library preservation grants.
Mayor Ross Petersen said personally he is fine with waiting on the Rova study. “I’m not sure what we will learn from a usage study,” he said. “A seven-month wait is too long.”
Hogan pointed out that the usage study would provide information on the use of the Community Center if the library is taken out. “To me, the council should be interested in that study as much as we are. I didn’t expect it to take seen months.”
Petersen asked Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski how would the proposed timeline would affect the project.
“There would be no huge repercussions,” he said. “We could decide to go ahead with the larger (City Hall improvement) project and use $2 million in bonds and keep the $1.2 million out for a future date. It would be good to move forward on the larger project,” he said.
“A referendum would delay the entire project,” he added. “It could be at least six months before we could revisit the issue.”
Councilman Gordon Sheddy said the $1.2 million earmarked from the bond issue to go toward construction of a new library would not be enough to fix the Community Center.
“That is open to conjecture,” Hogan said.
“That is a fact,” Sheddy replied.
“We have already voted to bond to fix City Hall and build a new library,” Sheddy continued. “This was not done willy nilly. Lots of thought went into this. We had three public hearings. We have a building that is used 30 percent for the library. We still have to heat the other 70 percent. That is a big draw on the city.”
“Only 105 signatures are needed for the referendum. I do not believe it would pass. I feel you are holding us hostage.”
Hogan said his group is calling their proposal a compromise. “We are not holding you hostage,” he said. “We are asking that you reconsider based an new information that is coming.”
Councilman Warren Nikkola said the cost of improving the city buildings has been looked at for the past eight or nine years. “Every time a new (cost) number comes up someone picks fly specks out of pepper,” he said. “Any Tom, Dick or Harry could do a referendum.”
He continued, “I think you are holding us hostage and I’m not happy about it. A referendum will get shot down and I’m ready to go to bat against it.”
Councilman Paul Kess, a supporter of keeping the library in the Community Center said he “clearly” supports the compromise. “The value lies in not going through the referendum process,” he said.
“We’ve seen passion on this issue on both sides,” he said. “Since we are not pushing on this for a few months anyway, a six-month wait is reasonable.”
Councilman Jerome Debeltz pointed out that the proposed cost of improving both City Hall and the Community Center was $4.7 million. “We just don’t have the bonding power to do that,” he said.
“I think the Rova study will bring that number down,” Hogan said. “We are not confident with your numbers. Our opinion is that we don’t have the right numbers at this point. Our purpose is not to hold anybody hostage.”
Library Director Rachel Heinrich pointed out upcoming deadlines. By law, every library must be compliant in terms of the American with Disabilities Act by 2016.
A grant application for library improvements, potentially worth up to $600,000, is due by Oct. 16.
Langowski said after that deadline, the grant cycle will go into another year. ”Who knows if that will even be funded? We need to be compliant by 2016. That is not that far away.”
Nikkola added that bonding costs have increased in the past several months and are likely to continue to rise. “By delaying everything you are spending the city’s tax dollars. If you are happy with that, then go for it,” he said. “I’m concerned about spending taxpayers’ money by sitting on our thumbs.”
Kess said he believes the referendum will be triggered. “We will have a six-month delay anyway. Let’s look at the studies and avoid the confrontational attitude I sense,” he said.
Langowski suggested that he and the library director study the grant program as well as the bonding issue in terms of changing the scope of the project to improving the existing library.
The council agreed to gather Tuesday, Sept. 10 for a special meeting to discuss Langowski’s findngs. The meeting will begin at 8:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers.