by Dennis Dalman
In a stunning moment, the St. Joseph City Council voted 4-1 at its May 15 meeting to reject a low bid of $4.2 million for a new government center. That bid had come in about $300,000 under the estimated cost of the planned center.
Council member Dale Wick was the one who voted against rejecting the bid. Wick had said on several occasions he truly believes a new government center is warranted.
That council action means the city’s former plans to build a government center are, at least for the moment, dead. Or at least “shelved,” as the council put it. The May 15 bid rejection is clearly a win for St. Joseph residents who have been fiercely opposed to the government-center plan.
About 40 people attended the May 15 council meeting. One of them, Irene Reber, was prepared to present nearly 1,000 petition signatures to the council, although in light of the council’s action, the petition presentation seemed to be unnecessary.
“I’m very happy,” said Mike McDonald, one of the plan’s opponents during an interview with the St. Joseph Newsleader. He also said the majority of the council showed courage in backing down from a plan they had been so in favor of and on which they had spent nearly $500,000 in prep expenses, including buying and tearing down the credit-union building on the corner lot.
McDonald said he and others had three major objections to the plan:
- The community meeting room concept.
- That the council used that room as a pretext, some opponents claimed, for a plan to spend regional half-cent sales-tax money for the project.
- A feeling among opponents the council had not communicated well enough with its constituents.
In recent weeks, a growing number of opponents organized, collected signatures for a petition and voiced their opposition at meetings with the mayor and council. Their basic opposition is a new building would be too costly and it would contain a community room opponents claim nobody needs. The petition asked the council to put the government-center on a referendum ballot.
And now, it’s back to the drawing board for the council to come up with an alternative. One possible solution is to fix and expand the current city building, which houses city staff and the police department. It needs an estimated $200,000 in repairs, including a new roof and HVAC system. To complicate matters, the building wasn’t designed for easy expansion and a second (third???) floor cannot be added. In addition, several council members, most notably Renee Symanietz, have noted it would cost more to re-do and expand the old building than to construct a new one.
The city had purchased the credit-union building directly to its north, and that old building was torn down last year, with some kind of city-building expansion in mind.
At the May 15 meeting, St. Joseph Mayor Rick Schultz said just about everybody in the city he has talked with opposed the government-center project. City council member Steve Frank has always opposed it, citing its expense and the urgency of other city needs.
The council has repeatedly said it carefully checked all options in trying to do something about the serious lack of space in the current building. Residents, council members said, have long wanted a community room, and so the council reasoned adding a community room would fill that need in a building that would also comfortably accommodate city offices and the police department.
Opponents, however, in recent public meetings said the city does not want or need a community room but rather, if someday it’s affordable and do-able, a community center, not just a “room.”
At its May 15 meeting, the council agreed to hold several working sessions to re-examine options on what to do about an all-too crowded government/police building.