by Dennis Dalman
At least one member of the St. Joseph City Council, Steve Frank, opposes a new city government center – at least as the plan now exists.
At a public meeting April 29 at the St. Joseph Community Fire Hall meeting room, Frank, who was sitting in the audience stood up and told the audience that at this time the city cannot afford both a government center and a community center. Maybe in the future, Frank said, but not now. He also said adding a “community room” to a newly built government center is a “bastardization” of the meaning of a “regional” project, thus an excuse to use half-cent sales-tax money for a new government center.
About 160 people attended the open meeting, which lasted one hour and 45 minutes. At least 25 people spoke, some of them several times. The mood of the meeting, especially as it began, was feisty and even angry, with some residents raising their voices in opposition to the center project and others demanding a referendum so the voters could decide whether or not to build one.
The meeting was led by St. Joseph Mayor Rick Schultz. Besides Frank, who had to leave the meeting early, there were council members Bob Loso, Renee Symanietz and Dale Wick, and city administrator Judy Weyrens. Those members stood against the north wall of the meeting hall, along with many residents because of the standing-room only conditions in the room.
Also attending the meeting were people known for their strong opposition to the center as currently proposed. They included Mike McDonald, who has written several letters to local media in opposition; and Irene Reber, who spearheaded a petition in favor of a voter referendum.
Based on the majority of comments at the meeting, it was apparent most were opposed to a government center, an estimated $4.5-million building that would be constructed on the current city-hall/police department building once that structure is torn down. The project would include a community-meeting room that could be used by anybody and rented even by out-of-towners since it would be designated a regional facility. The project would be paid for by a combination of city taxes and the half-cent regional sales tax.
Mayor Schultz told the audience he wanted the meeting to be a civic dialogue and that those who speak should speak only on behalf of themselves, not others in the room.
However, as vocal opponents voiced their opposition to the plan – especially a sentiment in favor of a referendum – the applause and vocal yeah-saying made it clear most in the audience were against the center or skeptical about it.
Schultz said he personally is opposed to a referendum. It would be far better, he said, if all people could get together and work out their differences to come up with a project all could support. That, Schultz said, is why the meeting was called to begin with – to hear concerns by opponents or doubters so a consensus could maybe be achieved by and by. Schultz also said there are maybe up to 200 people in the meeting room that night but there are about 4,000 voters in the city. A couple members of the audience agreed voting college students could skew the results of an election into something most residents would probably oppose.
Almost none of the speakers identified themselves. One woman said the power of democracy should be trusted, a referendum should be held and residents must inform themselves before they vote. Several more speakers, however, said being informed is difficult because the city council and staff have not done enough to communicate with the public the exact details about the government-center proposal.
Schultz said he agreed communication should be better, but he also said in late March the city held a public-input meeting about the government center and only 20 people attended. News about the center has been published in local media, including the St. Joseph Newsleader, but people said they either hadn’t noticed the news or there were not enough details about the center. One woman suggested the city print council minutes verbatim in the Newsleader. Schultz said that could prove to be very expensive but he will check into it.
Council member Renee Symanietz told the audience the city’s facilities committee, of which she is a member, worked for months on a government-center project, considering input from many people.
The St. Joseph Economic Development Administration, she said, strongly favored building a center in the downtown area. Space at the current city-hall building is extremely tight to hold both the police department and city staff. And the current building has all kinds of structural issues, including a leaky roof and heating problems. In addition, it is not structurally feasible to build a second story on the current building, council members noted.
Symanietz said the facilities committee and council considered many options, including retro-fitting the old Kennedy Elementary School as a city center, including community spaces, but all other options proved to be prohibitively expensive, she added.
Council member Bob Loso said the council struggled over the word “regional” as regards spending the half-cent regional sales tax. The state, he said, never gave a good, working definition of the word. The state requires any project built with sales-tax funds be regional in nature – such as buildings, roads or parks that can and will be used by people not living in that particular city.
Can’t afford it
Many speakers at the meeting emphasized the citizens just cannot afford to pay taxes toward a new building.
“It’s our money!” an elderly man said, anger in his voice. “You people get a raise. We don’t get a raise. Obama won’t give us one.”
A woman said St. Joseph has a 22 percent poverty rate. In light of that, she said, it makes more sense to spend money on park amenities for children than spending $4.5 million on a government center.
No community room
Several speakers, in no uncertain terms, said they do not want or need a community room. There are, they said, plenty of other meeting places in town: the fire hall, the church, the Wobegon Trailhead meeting room.
Adding a community room is a waste of money, they said.
A community survey done some years ago indicated a community center was at the top of people’s wish lists, Symanietz noted.
Some speakers agreed a community center might be a good idea for the future but a community room is not needed.
Council member Dale Wick said preliminary bids just opened by the city indicate the lowest bid is about $250,000 less than its $4.5 million cost.
Several speakers complained about the $452,000 already spent toward a government center, a cost that includes architectural planning and design, pre-design, contractor management and soil testing, among other charges.
One man said contractors come to the city and convince the council they need something new just because other cities, like Sartell or Sauk Rapids, have new facilities.
“It’s like keeping up with the Joneses,” he said.
Mike McDonald said the city has given misleading information about how much the government center would cost residents over a 20-year period in taxes. The figure given per year was about $12 on average, but the real cost would be about $129 a year for a house valued at $150,000, McDonald alleged.
Several people at the meeting said they do see a need for more space for the police department and city offices, but exactly how to fulfill that need remains a big question, they noted.
One man said if the city would divulge exact details of a plan, then the residents would know precisely what they’re voting for, should the issue come up for a vote.
A woman said she does not oppose the plan – just its proposed location.
Others insisted the building could be repaired and then expanded.
A male speaker said there is no doubt there is a need for more space for both police and city staff.
“I fully support this plan,” he said. “Let’s step up to the plate. It should be done in downtown St. Joseph.”
Not done deal
Schultz told the audience the government-center plan remains a plan only, not a done deal. He promised the audience there will be more meetings and more efforts to reach a consensus on what kind of building to construct.
“We’re not there yet,” Schultz said. “We’re not going through with anything. We wanted this feedback. We would rather work out a consensus. I think we will eventually.”
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.