A week after tense discussions took place between the Finance Committee and those with library questions and concerns, city hall was full again, this time for the regular February city council meeting.
It was a jam-packed room where the meeting opened with public comments. Mayor Paul Isakson asked that speakers approach the podium, state their name and keep comments under two minutes.
Debbie Christopherson spoke encouraging anyone who lives in or loves Amery to attend Design Amery, April 3 and 4, which will take place at Amery Schools. Outside of Christopherson’s comment, all others pertained to the relocating of the Amery Public Library.
Public comments concerning library move
Dr. Shawn Doerfler, Superintendent of Amery Schools read a statement saying, “First of all, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak here this evening. Your service to the Amery community is very much appreciated. Public service as an elected official is a thankless line of work.”
“We are all here this evening because we care about the future of the Amery public library… whatever that future may be.
“The library has been a mainstay in the landscape of Amery life for decades. I like all of you have made the library a part of my children’s upbringing. Saturday trips to the Amery library are a fixture for my three children as well as for my wife and me.
I am not here to tell you the City Council what to do regarding the future of the library. That is not my message nor is it my place to do so. Further, I am not here to tell any of you that your feelings, frustrations or anger about the proposed future of the library are unfounded. I appreciate your impassioned sentiments about our library. It would be far worse to not care about our public library at all,” said Doerfler.
“I am here simply to implore all of you to think about the importance of having an open, honest and respectful dialogue about how to proceed with this very important decision. Let’s find a way whereby the community of Amery can support the City Council to make this tough decision in a manner, which is in the best interests of our Amery kids,” he said.
“The City Council needs the opportunity to make this decision in an organized and thoughtful way and the public needs the chance to make known their concerns about the future of the library,” Doerfler said.
“Know this… Nothing will be gained by making a hurried decision. I encourage the City to slow down. Please take a moment to ease the pace of this process for the sake of building a better understanding for all members of the Amery community. Do so as a means to build consensus around whatever decision is made,” he said.
In closing, he said, “Those gathered here this evening and those who are not but who are just as concerned as all of you… Give our elected officials the chance to do what they feel is right. Do so without angrily asked questions; veiled attacks or aggressive dispositions, which do little but, create animosity and resentment. We must slow down and settle down. If we don’t the only group, which will lose will not be the City Council nor any of you. The losers in this situation will be our Amery kids.”
A previous resident of Golden Age Manor, currently living at Evergreen Village, Sandy Olson shared her concerns and said the older community depends on the library for socialization and appreciates the current location that has a hallway connecting to Golden Age. She believes it promotes safe indoor exercise for those who walk to the library.
She also commended the library on their highly visited “Love Your Library” event. She said there were many cars parked in the lot and down the street. If the library was located inside of the current Bremer building, she did not feel the Village Pizzeria would be very happy with the overflow of vehicles.
Ashley Long took the podium and said, “The public as well as library staff and the five other community organizations that currently reside in the Amery Area Public Library portion of the West Campus were notified of the city council and mayor’s plan to purchase the Bremer bank building and move the library, police station and city hall into one city center building through an article in the Amery Free Press Jan. 16.
“Since the press release is the only information the public, library and community organizations have we are left with many unanswered questions and discrepancies.”
She wondered, “What are these unforeseen circumstances and did they have anything to do with retaining businesses in Amery and was the purchase of the Bremer building conditional on Bremer staying in Amery and building a new bank?”
She asked if the council could demonstrate through exact figures how the cost of the library’s portion of the West Campus became “beyond our means” and when? Also, how these costs compare to the Bremer bank city center project?
“Is it correct that in 2019 the city appropriation to the Library was $200,000 and that appropriation is only 4% of the city’s total budget for 2019? Is it also correct that the Library pays the condo fees, gas, trash, electric and other utilities within their budget?” asked Long.
She said to be correct and accurate, the city does not pay any condo or utility fees on the library’s behalf. The library is given an appropriation by the city and the library pays the condo fees and utilities. She said, “So why is it unaffordable for the city? Isn’t that determined by the library board and their budget?”
She brought up the HVAC needing an upgrade by the hospital has been discussed in many meetings with differing information. She asked, “What is the cost of the HVAC project? Does the Library HVAC need to be upgraded since there are multiple RTUs?
How many estimates were submitted and reviewed? Did the entire city council have access to the exact cost of the HVAC project before voting to purchase the Bremer building and deciding to relocate the Amery Area Public Library without public input, community collaboration and a clear design and budget for the new city center?”
What is the library’s responsibility financially, since the library pays the condo fees and why was the library not given an opportunity to budget their responsibility for the HVAC costs?
Long said according to city council minutes the Amery Area Public Library and West Campus space was purchased for $995,000 in 2008.
She talked about an August 2019, $600,000 appraisal of the current library and police locations and wondered if all square footage was included.
She asked, “Did the council considered putting the building on the market to other buyers other than to quote the Mayor, ‘We went to Amery Hospital and Clinic and asked if we could get out of their condo association and they agreed?’”
Long said, “What did the city sell the Amery Area Public Library and Amery Police Station to Amery Hospital and Clinic for? It was stated by a city council member in the 1/28/2020 meeting that “it was in the neighborhood of $450,000.”
In closing, Long said, “So to summarize, the city sold the current Amery Area Public Library and Amery Police Station for an appraised value a $150,000 loss. The city also took a $995,000 investment, sold it for $450,000 and purchased a $350,000 building that will need millions of dollars to become the grand city center in the next five to 10 years at the cost of the library, tax payers and generous community organizations. Why was this all done in closed session?”
Kay Erickson approached the podium, looked at the council and asked two questions, “Was the Planning Commission involved in any of this process and if they were not, why?”
Response from council members
Later in the meeting, Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. (SEH) was approved as the firm the council chose to perform a Request For Proposal (RFP), as they move forward with the project.
Before that vote was made, council member Chad Leonard read a statement and said, “My phone has been ringing off of the hook, which is great. I envisioned when I was appointed in August that would happen and that is why I am here.”
He said he wanted to address some of the questions and comments that he has heard. He said the council has been accused of hating the library and wanting to burn books, that the council is doing this to help out Bremer, that they are taking away an opportunity for the elderly to visit the library and that they are moving into a space that is moldy and half the size. He said he has heard concerns over parking and that this was all done in secret. “The list goes on and on,” he said.
“The way that I see it, is that I see three groups with this situation,” Leonard said. He described these groups as one that sees the potential, another that doesn’t know enough yet to make a decision and a third group that doesn’t want it to see it happen, no matter what anyone says. He said, “So really we have the ready, the unready and the unwilling. The question is ‘how do we all get ready and move forward?’”
He said his decision to move forward with where the city is headed is being done knowing the city does not hate the library. He said the city is not looking to buy Bremer in order to help them out, but in discussions council members expressed wanting Bremer to stay in Amery in order for this to happen.
In terms of the size of the current space being larger than the new, Leonard said some things still need to be explored. “Although the information I have seen shows the library, police and Historical Society, which is in the basement, by the way, to total 21, 996 feet and the total space at the Bremer building that I have seen figures for is 24,800 feet. It appears there is more space at Bremer, which allows the inclusion of the city offices,” said Leonard.
He next addressed Bremer moldy basement concerns and said the lower level has windows that allow natural light. “To characterize it as a dingy, moldy, dirty basement, I do not think is a good representation of that space,” he said.
Talking about accessibility concerns he said Bremer has an elevator, just as the hospital does to get up and down, so he does not see it as an issue.
He said he understands safety and parking concerns and said it is something they will continue to work through. Leonard said meetings were held in closed session concerning the matter as they were working with private entity that did not want the information out, but said members of the library were aware discussions were taking place. He also said financially it made no sense to stay in the current Condo Association agreement. “I am in favor of contract to move forward with to assess the feasibility of combining all of the spaces together,” he said.
Isakson chose to answer as many of Long’s questions as he felt he could. “Until we determine what is confidential information from the hospital, I will answer as many questions as I can,” he said. Regarding the city purchasing Bremer and conditioning they stay in Amery he said, “That was their offer; to sell us the building and down size. Their new building is going to be 3,500 to 5,000 square feet and will be a nice addition to the city of Amery.”
He said they do not have permission from Amery Hospital to release HVAC information, but did confirm that library costs, including the condo fee, come out of the allocated funds the library receives each year from the city.
He said the city paid $2000 for the August 2019 appraisal that valued the current library/police space at $600,000 and he was unsure why it looked like a portion of the space (shown on a map of the building) was left out of the appraisal. He said the council did not think about putting the building up for sale to anyone besides the library as selling the building which is in a condo agreement, would be difficult. When speaking of the condo agreement he said, “How do you sell the library or police building without the land beneath it? That was a crazy situation from the beginning.” Isakson said originally the hospital offered to buy the space back from the city for one dollar and negotiations brought it back up to $415,000.
“We purchased a $350,000 building that was appraised for $1.8 million on the tax roll. Right now I think our investments in the end will off set each other,” said Isakson.
Although some Long’s questions were addressed, Erickson’s concerning the Planning Commission was not.
What is the Planning Commision?
According to the City of Amery website, The Plan Commission consists of the Mayor, who shall be the presiding officer, one Alderperson, City Administrator and five citizens.
Currently that consists of Mayor Isakson, Councilmember Julie Riemenschneider, Mike Karuschak, Stan Proden, Fran Hawksford and Linda Millermon. There is also currently a vacant seat.
Duties listed on the website consist of the following:
The Master (Comprehensive) Plan: The Plan Commission may make, adopt and, as necessary, amend, extend and add to the master plan, subject to City Council confirmation, for the physical development of the City including areas outside of its boundaries which, in the Plan Commission’s judgement, bear relation to the development of the City.
Mandatory Referrals to Commission: The City Council having final authority thereon shall refer to the Plan Commission, for its consideration and report before final action is taken by the Council, public body or officer, the following matters:
The location of any statue or other memorial;
The location, acceptance, extension, alteration, vacation, abandonment, change of use, sale, acquisition of land for or lease of land for any street, alley or other public ways, park, playground, airport, area for parking vehicles, or other memorial or public grounds;
The location, extension, abandonment or authorization for any public utility whether publicly or privately owned;
All plats of lands in the City or within the territory over which the City is given platting jurisdiction by Chapter 236, Wis. Stats.;
The location, character and extent or acquisition, leasing or sale of lands for public or semi-public housing, slum clearance, relief of congestion or vacation camps for children; and the amendment or repeal of any land use ordinance.
Miscellaneous Powers: The Commission may make reports and recommendations relating to the plan and development of the City to public officials and agencies, public utility companies, civic, educational, professional and other organization and citizens. It may recommend to the Common Council programs for public improvements.