Tag Archives: safety center

Focusing for the final months of the Safety Center process

As some of you may be aware, I have long been troubled by the safety center project and, even more, by the safety center process. However, unlike some of the most vocal opponents, my concerns are not driven by passionate charges of questionable ethics or legality, but instead are driven by perceptions of flawed process and product.

I’m sure that there will be some who will quickly challenge or deny my version of events. However, based on what I’ve heard from at least a half dozen people who were directly involved, in at least some point, and had a verification of my memory by three of the people in the last week, I believe my version is more than adequately accurate and, more importantly, captures the true essence of the process and the product.

About a dozen city staff members met for twelve months and developed the conceptual plan for the safety center. Then a task force was formed; it consisted of the original twelve city staff people with the addition of six citizen representatives. This task force was given three months, not to consider the facility’s problems or solutions, but to provide a quick review of staff’s plan.

Two of the citizen members, the two with decades of experience in real estate development and construction, were so disturbed by staff’s plan that they issued a minority report. Although these citizens were attacked for their report, they raised enough valid concerns so that another task force was formed. This group included the same dominance by city staff and the citizen members were generally more supportive of leadership’s agenda. However, one of the citizen members, the one with decades of real estate development and construction experience, supported the conclusions of the minority report.

There were two more task forces, mixes of staff and councilors. As I recall, one looked at the feasibility of reusing the existing safety center facility and one was to consider sites for a new facility. Neither group explored, much less challenged, the assumptions or recommendations of the original staff report.

In my opinion, this was a closed, unhealthy, adaptation and innovation-preventing process. There was no genuine citizen involvement that would, in my opinion, characterize a positive, creative, and successful process, particularly one for a project that was characterized by Northfield’s leadership as being of such high priority and by Northfield’s taxpayers as being of such substantial burden.

The result of this closed, unhealthy, and innovation-stifling process was, I believe, a flawed product. Specifically, I fear that we have a plan that does not meet our greatest needs, requires development costs which are excessive and unproductive, takes resources from higher community priorities, and will produce operating costs that are so much more than our current costs that we will be forced to cut services or raise taxes.

Like the “minority” members, I have some experience in real estate development. When developing a facility for a client, we started with the programming, or “needs” and then proposed a space program, or “solutions”. The needs for the safety center have been all over the map.

Based on my memory of Northfield News articles, there have been a series of “crises” that we needed to address. These crises, captured in separate, alarming Northfield News articles, included: 1) the fire truck garage bays, 2) the flood plain, 3) the joint training room, 4) the drunk tank, 5) the police car computers, 6) the puddles and the mold, 7) and the staff offices.

For these ever-changing needs, or crisis, there was one solution: build a new safety center. It was a single facility that cost $10.5 million…or, according to those with the knowledge and experience, $12 million. Or it was two facilities that would not cost more than $8.25 million. Finally, it was a new police station, or Phase 1 as the Mayor called it, for $7.2 million, with either a redevelopment of the present site or a new fire department addition to the new police station, Phase 2 according to the Mayor, for an unknown additional $ millions.

Back when I was involved in real estate development, it was not uncommon for clients to want more than one possible proposed solution for a programming problem or need. A wise local man referred to these as the “Chevy-Buick-Cadillac” options. In my opinion, we started with the Cadillac and moved to the Hummer.

Off the top of my head, I could toss out some “Chevy” solutions. For 1) the fire truck garage bays, add a bay or two on the current site, 2) for the flood plain, build that $160,000 (if I recall) dike around the southeast corner, 3) for the joint training room, rent a facility for the once or twice a year event, 4) for the drunk tank, build where the required medical personnel are already in place, perhaps in a location that could service a larger region, 5) for the police car computers, buy detachable computers, 6) for the puddles and the mold, mop up the water and turn the dehumidifier back on, and 7) for staff offices, either a) keep the officers in their cars with their computers or b) store some of the file cabinets at a different site.

Now, I realize that some of my simple solutions might actually be simplistic. I sincerely don’t want to trivialize any of these issues, and I am deeply committed to meeting the needs of the police and fire departments, through an affordable and sustainable plan. However, I just want to demonstrate that I was able to quickly come up with alternative solutions to spending $ millions on a new facility. Actually, I guess my proposed solution for the fire truck garage bays isn’t really “mine”, it’s right out of the March 2007 “City of Northfield Minnesota Municipal Facilities Space Needs Analysis” by Hay Dobbs. It was part of an earlier, was it $3 million, plan to renovate the existing facility.

But the bonds are sold and an entity, either the City or USBank, is going to build a new police station in the southwest corner of Northfield. Perhaps there’s still an opportunity to insure that building a garage for police cars and offices for police staff will meet their, and the community’s, police facility needs at a cost that won’t limit the community’s ability to address other priorities.

In my opinion, the best way to assure an effective plan and successful product is a truly open process that includes a healthy amount of participation by those with the essential knowledge and experience. Perhaps the “Minority Three” might participate, one more time, in a more balanced and open process.

In order to assure an open, invigorating process, resulting in an effective and sustainable product, I would suggest that commercial property taxpayers also be included. The financial burden of both the development and operations of the police and fire stations are borne by taxpayers, commercial property owners at three times the burden of residential property owners per dollar of value. No one will be more motivated to work to assure that Northfield citizens get the biggest bang for their bucks.

We’ve got just a few months to insure that all of the time and talents invested by our community’s leaders are well spent; now is the moment for the final focus. Let’s put together a balanced team, for an open process, and achieve an effective, and sustainable, solution.

Financing the public Safety Center: I feel duped

On June 5, the Northfield City Council decided to use lease/revenue bonds to finance the Safety Center. Councilor Betsey Buckheit has a detailed response in her June 11 blog post titled Financing the Public Safety Center-what and why. An excerpt:

bumpy-roadProcedurally, the meeting was complicated by Patrick Ganey’s absence.  A motion to use GO referendum bonds and the motion to issue CIP bonds both failed on tie votes (Rhonda Pownell, Suzie Nakasian, and Ivan Imm supported both; Mayor Rossing, Erica Zweifel and I voted no).  Erica Zweifel made a motion – not impromptu as the LWV blog called it, but well thought our [sic] and justified – to use EDA/HRA lease revenue bonds; the motion was adopted on a 4-2 vote (Yes – Rossing, Buckheit, Imm, Zweifel; No – Nakasian and Pownell.

It was LWV Observer Jane McWilliams who labeled it ‘impromptu’ in her comments:

The lease revenue bond decision, like others the council has made, while it might make sense in the long run, seemed impromptu. Several councilors seemed unprepared for this outcome. One wonders whether all members of the council had time to seriously consider the merits and shortcomings of this funding mechanism. There definitely was a sense that several of the councilors were not in favor of letting the public decide. That seemed the primary goal and justification for the selected bonding method.

If it was "well thought out and justified" as Betsy wrote, I’m not aware of when and where that discussion was made public.  I was stunned at the move as some others were. I had no idea this form of financing was even a possibility.  My first reaction: this is similar to when the EDA issued the bond for the outdoor swimming pool, a really inappropriate use of its financing authority.

I agree with Betsey that:

… since earlier this year, the Council has made significant progress in defining the scope of the project, cost, location, and creating flexibility to address fire department organization, equipment and facilities issues…

but the deliberate public engagement (this year) on all this has been nearly non-existent, somewhat understandably so.  Now is the time for it but it’s moot now because the Council has removed the citizenry from any direct influence on the outcome, a complete end-run.  It’s a short term solution that increases public cynicism, an opportunity lost for creating a partnership with city hall on a really important capital improvement project.

And Councilor Patrick Ganey owes the public an explanation of why he wasn’t there for this important vote and a detailed explanation of how he would have voted on all the motions.

The Chamber wants voter approval for Safety Center financing. I do, too.

In Saturday’s Nfld News: Chamber board wants voter approval for Northfield Safety Center financing:

Northfield ChamberThe Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce board believes voters should decide whether to use bonds to finance a new Safety Center. Failing to do so, says board President Rick Estenson, could completely derail the project, in the works for more than four years.

The board, according to Estenson, will submit a letter to the council Monday, detailing its concerns about the vote set for Tuesday night. If the council agrees to finance the project with Capital Improvement Bonds, voter approval isn’t required. The bonds do allow for taxpayers to weigh in however, by calling for a reverse referendum. A referendum could come if opponents of the proposed bond issue get 398 registered voters to sign a petition calling for a referendum.

See pages 155-184 of the Council packet for Tuesday’s Council meeting and public hearing:

Public Hearing on the Capital Improvement Plan (Bonds);

b. Consider Approval of a Resolution 2012-054 Giving Preliminary Approval for the Issuance of Capital Improvement Plan Bonds (not to exceed $7,280,000)

Decision! Council opts to keep fire station at current location, build new police station behind Perkins


This is a real surprise. In today’s Nfld news: Council votes to split police, fire

The Northfield City Council, as expected, settled on a new Safety Center site Tuesday. But instead of choosing a parcel to house a joint facility, it voted 5-1, with Mayor Mary Rossing abstaining, to move ahead with the purchase of a 4.2-acre site on Riverview Drive behind Perkins restaurant for a police station.

The new building would also house administrative and training facilities for the Police and Fire departments while fire trucks would continue to be located at the current building at Hwy. 3 and Fifth Street. That facility would likely be upgraded for continued use.

Video segment – 18. Motion – Policy Direction on the new Public Safety Center

I need time and conversation to think more about this but my immediate reaction is that I like it.

The Northfield Safety Center’s flooding problems can be fixed for less than $350K

I’m surprised how few people know that the City of Northfield commissioned an engineering study of the Northfield Safety Center to determine what would be needed to deal with its proximity to the Cannon River.

The report, prepared by Art Kalmes, URS Corporation, is included in the packet for the Council work session on August 31, 2009 (badly formatted PDF), and identified four different options for levels of flood protection, the most costly in the $350,000 range. See pages 8-9 for the consultant’s summary of the options, paraphrased here:

  • Option A involves the constructing a levee and floodwall around the perimeter of the facility
  • Option B raises the parking lot to allow access to the building expansion which would be elevated above the 100-year flood level
  • Option C is similar to Option C but would abandon the lowest level of the existing building
  • Option D calls for wet flood proofing of the existing building

Yes, last fall’s 100-year flood threatened the Safety Center. But it survived pretty well and flooding can be mitigated for a relatively small amount of money.

Yes, we need a bigger and better fire facility and the police facility needs many improvements. But that doesn’t mean the current Safety Center (the same age as Greenvale School), should be thrown away.

There are many other reasons that the City Council should not issue a bond for a new Safety Center facility right now. This is one.  Contact members of the Northfield City Council and then show up at next Tuesday’s (March 1) public hearing at City Hall.

See the full engineering report (PDF) starting on page 8 or view it in a variety of ways below:

Review of Flood Protection Alternatives – Northfield Safety Center

City Council: No public referendum on financing safety center. Will taxpayers petition to reverse that?

Northfield-safety-centerLast June, I was pleased that the Northfield City Council voted 4-2 to have the citizens vote in November on whether or not the city should issue bonds to pay for new police and fire facilities. (In August, they voted to put the Safety Center project on hold.)  Last night, they voted instead to issue Capital Improvement (CIP) general obligation bonds. I’m eager to hear the rationale. 

In this economic climate, I don’t understand why the Council doesn’t want the public to weigh in on such an important decision. Getting it built a little sooner hardly seems reason enough.  I’m not the only one. See this Nov. 19 Northfield News editorial:

Now that the Northfield City Council has agreed on the scope and cost of a new Safety Center, we want to reiterate our belief that the question of how to fund the facility needs to go before the voters…  There’s little doubt that the police and fire departments need a new facility, one out of the flood plain that will allow their staffs to work more effectively and efficiently. But we believe those shouldering the burden need to decide if the added cost is a payment they’re willing to make.

For those of us taxpayers who object, we can gather signatures to try to reverse the council’s financing decision, forcing the Council to put it before the voters in November. The City’s website says:

A reverse referendum petition must be signed by voters equal to five percent of the votes cast in the city in the last general election and is filed with the City Clerk within 30 days after the public hearing. Should the decision be made to issue CIP bonds and should a reverse referendum petition succeed, the question would be put to the voters in the fall general election.

More:

KYMN:  Council opts for CIP, general obligation bonds to finance safety center

Northfield Patch:  Northfield City Councilors Approve Safety Center Financing

Nfld News: Safety Center financing selected

Rural Fire’s rhetoric over Safety Center cost-sharing heats up, raises issue of aging fire vehicles

Northfield-safety-center Jerry Anderson
Today’s Nfld News article, Getting their due, features the conflict between the City of Northfield and the Northfield Rural Fire Protection District over the proposed new Safety Center:

For months, city leaders, particularly Mayor Mary Rossing, have said discussions with Rural Fire leaders over cost sharing for a new Safety Center were stalled. Rossing even went so far as to imply Rural Fire officials weren’t willing to negotiate a deal. That’s just not true, say Jerry Anderson, Ray Ozmun and Paul Liebenstein, all members of the Northfield Rural Fire Protection District Board of Directors.

… It isn’t about the vehicles, says Anderson, Ozmun and Liebenstein. It’s about the Rural Fire District being recognized for its contributions when its time to talk about paying for a new Safety Center. And, said Anderson, if it’s going to be called a partner it expects to be treated like a partner.

I found it odd that, according to the article, Public Safety Chief Mark Taylor says ‘city leaders’ find that Rural Fire’s proposed $308,000 contribution to be low.  Which city leaders, and why weren’t they interviewed for this article?

Back in July of 2009, Bridgewater Township Supervisor, Kathleen Doran-Norton commented here on LoGro:

One of the comments I heard at last night’s inter-governmental meeting was that the $10 million+ safety center needed to be a beautiful building that would make the people of Northfield proud. The township supervisors at this meeting asked if Northfield’s architectural design standards were driving up the cost of this building. There’s no interest in a Taj ma(fire)hal. What’s expected and would be supported is a serviceable utility building that fits the trucks that we use to keep folks safe, and located where everyone served can be reached without delay.

and then later in the thread here:

The city has indicated several times over the last year that it plans to talk with the Rural Fire Association and all other entities about financial support for the fire hall. The paper has reported a proposal to raise permit and other fees to pay for it. Drive by the new fire hall in New Prague. For less than $3 million, they got more than a gray box.

So it seems that Rural Fire would rather have Northfield spend more on equipment than it has in the past and less on a new building.  I can’t disagree.  And although the Council has made its decision on a new $10 million Safety Center, it’s far from certain that the voters will agree, especially when A) they find out that ‘all three city-purchased [fire] vehicles are more than 23 years old;" and B) that the current Safety Center’s flooding problem could  be fixed for $325,000.

City Administrator’s weekly memo of June 25, 2010

Joel-WalinskiThe “Friday Memo,” written by Northfield City Administrator Joel Walinski, department heads, and other City employees, summarizes the staff activities for the week. The Friday memos are published and archived in PDF form at the bottom of the City Administrator’s web page.

In addition to the regular department reports, this week’s memo (PDF) includes:

  • Information about absentee voting, which begins June 28.
  • Update on the annexation request in Bridgewater Township for Mayo Clinic, which will be heard by the City Council on Tuesday MORNING this week.
  • Update on the Safety Center Projects and the proposed meeting schedule for the Steering Committee and Design Team.
  • Update on the Surface Water Management Plan and timetable.
  • Lots of other smaller project updates

There is a special Council Meeting on Tuesday 6/29 at 7:30 AM. You can view all upcoming City meetings on the City Calendar.