by Dennis Dalman
A petition is circulating in St. Joseph calling for a citywide referendum on whether or not to build a St. Joseph Government Center, as planned by the city council.
As of April 8, there were 377 signatures of city residents on the petition, with a goal of obtaining up to 700 signatures, according to Irene Reber, who is one of the petition coordinators.
Opponents of the government-center project want a referendum on the Nov. 20 ballot.
Here is what the petition states:
“As a resident of the City of St. Joseph, Minn., I support a referendum to be held regarding construction of a new city building and that it be put on the Nov. 20, 2014 ballot. Also let it be noted any and all spending on this building project be halted until after the results of the referendum be known.”
“We don’t need all that fancy-looking stuff,” Reber said, referring to plans for a new government center.
“There are people here who have lived here 50 or 60 years or more, she said, noting she herself is 85. “There’s a lot of widows and widowers living here who can’t afford these raised taxes. Even many people who are younger can’t afford more taxes.”
It’s not just increased taxes Reber is concerned about. She said she and many other residents do not see the need for a new government center.
“Fix the one we have,” Reber said. “Why tear it down? The city spends money and spends more money, then there’s nothing left for us.”
These are the bare-boned facts about the plans for a St. Joseph Government Center, as planned by the city council.
The estimated $4.5-million center would be constructed on the current city-hall site, after the present building is torn down. The 18,000-square-foot structure would include city offices, police offices, a city-council chamber, storage and a community room. It will be paid for by a combination of the half-cent regional sales tax and city taxes. There will be about 30 parking spaces.
Another St. Joseph resident, Mike McDonald, also strongly opposes construction of a government center. In a widely distributed letter and in an April 8 interview with the St. Joseph Newsleader, McDonald made the following assertions:
The inclusion of a “community room” in the proposed government center, McDonald said, is needless because there are already plenty of places for people to meet, such as the St. Joseph Community Fire Hall, the St. Joseph Catholic Church’s new Gathering Place, the year-round-heated Wobegon Trail room and other venues in the city. Current “community-room” spaces, McDonald said, are underused. He accuses the city of using a community-room function as a pretext to justify using half-cent regional sales tax money to help fund the project. That kind of sales tax necessitates a “regional” potential use for any project.
Additional reasons McDonald says he opposes the project are as follows:
• The building is “land-locked,” and there is no room for expansion for future needs, and so the city contention it will be good for 20-30 years is not true.
• Structural flaws in the current city-hall-police-department building (roof leaking, heating problems and more) could be remedied with funds already approved three years ago.
According to McDonald and other opponents, the city should spend half-cent sales-tax money on infrastructure projects (streets, water, sewer and more) that would attract business and industry to increase the city’s tax base. It’s foolish, detractors claim, to spend money on a government center that won’t bring in new taxes and that is needed because, as they claim, St. Joseph will not grow so much that more space will be needed for more city staff and city services.
A community room, McDonald said to the Newsleader, is not only not needed, it is an excuse, he said, to build a government center that should not be built. He also said the city council and staff must have confused residents’ wishes for a community “center” with a community “room.”
St. Joseph City Administrator Judy Weyrens said she is frustrated and upset by the opposition to a government center.
In an April 8 interview with the St. Joseph Newsleader, she said a community room has long been a top priority of residents in surveys that were taken – so much so the city had considered adding such a room onto the current city-hall-police-department building. But it soon became apparent such a project would be counterproductive, partly due to the shoddy condition of the current building – leaking and heating problems, to name just two.
As for accusations a community room was added to the project just to qualify it for regional sales-tax funds, Weyrens responded, “That’s so false.”
It would be far more costly, she said, to do building repairs and then add on a community room to the current building. And, she emphasized, it was the residents’ wish for a community room, in the first place, that propelled this current government-center project.
“The city,” Weyrens said, “is trying to be long-range financially responsible.”
Weyrens said McDonald and other opponents have a right to their opinions, but she added some of them do not understand the course and methods the city has taken, based on residents’ wishes.
Every current disagreement from opponents, she said, has been answered by the city in the past. Public meetings have been held, and most of them were attended by very few people, she added.
Weyrens noted current projections estimate average taxes for the government-center project would increase an average of $76 for a six-year period, based on the property taxes payable on a house valued at $150,000. That $76 increase, she explained, is the total for that period, meaning about a $12 increase per year.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.