“We do not have a pot of money.”
That was the final response from Alderman Tim Strohbusch when banter went back and forth between him and a community member who had questions concerning the cost of remodeling the current Bremer Bank to house City Hall, the Amery Public Library and police department.
A group of people who wanted their questions and concerns heard showed up at the Tuesday Jan. 28 meeting of the Finance Committee at City Hall. They were asked to approach the podium, state their name and keep comments to two minutes or less.
The first to approach council members was Shannon Schacht “I was shocked at this proposal. Amery is a gem. We have a wonderful community. I am not doing this to criticize, but to take something that is so monumental and wonderful and diminish it? You don’t build something up that is this magnificent and supportive of every level of people that live here; rich, young, old, in between, handicap-you name it. What we are about is serving our community. Why would I build a beautiful house that took me years to build and dedicated resources from neighbors and I say, ‘OK now we are going to move to an adequate house and spend almost equally as much?’”
She said she is concerned about the age of the Bremer building, parking and handicap access. “I really, really want you to reconsider. We need to put our money where the jewels are and the library is a stellar jewel. Why wreck something if it isn’t broke? If you think this is something we really need to take away and reinvest those dollars again for a less quality product, I think you need to reconsider,” she said.
Schacht returned to her seat with applause from the packed audience when Brenda Ramin made a plea from the back of the room to the committee members. “I would like some facts. I would like to know what the parameters are such as ‘How much, what stays and what goes with?’ Just to help generate a real conversation, if that is possible?”
Strohbusch responded, “The reason behind this is not to diminish the jewel of the city as the previous lady said, that is not our intention. It is to get all of our services under one roof. Financially the cost of staying in the current facilities of the library and police department are expensive, about $50,000 a year. That is a lot of money that we could be investing elsewhere within the city.”
He said the hospital has informed the city of a renovation project. “We would be on the hook for some of that.” He said the project was mentioned in a 2017 Free Press article and that article quoted the city’s expense of renovations to be around $600,000. “It is my assumption that price tag has increased in the last three years because they tend not to go down. So we are looking at significant cost to the city. We could reinvest that money into a facility that we own and that we control for the future of the city,” said Strohbusch.
“I understand the concern about the road diet and the reconstruction of downtown Amery, we are concerned too, but the road diet and reconstruction of downtown is, in the end, going to make Amery look like a model city,” he said. “It is our intention to make City Hall/the current Bremer building the jewel of downtown. We want it to look good. We are not going to put our facilities in someplace that is substandard. We have no intentions of putting any of our employees in an environment that is not good to work in,” said Strohbusch.
He said that the next item on the agenda after library comments was to look over engineering proposals for the project and look at the building. “Make the building meet the needs of city services. That means ADA compliant, HVAC compliant and anything else that is needed in that building to make it a nice facility,” Strohbusch said.
Ramin asked for some clarification on some of his statements concerning the yearly cost of the current library space. Strohbusch responded, “Where we are now is $50,000 a year.” She asked him to confirm that the HVAC for the current location will cost $600,000. “That is what our cost would be,” Strohbusch said. Ramin asked, “And that is an engineering number that has been published?”
Council member Rick Van Blaricom said, “Just some clarification on that. The $600,000 project for new HVAC is not to benefit the library or police department. As I understand the HVAC we have there now is adequate for our space. The $600,000 HVAC is our share of a one and a half to 2 million dollar upgrade that is necessary for the hospital part.”
Ramin asked, “Is that based on our condominium agreement?” “Yes,” said Van Blaricom. Ramin asked what year that agreement was made, but Van Blaricom could not remember. He said it was made before the library moved to the current location. Ramin asked, “That move was a $1.5 million project?” Van Blaricom responded, “I am not sure what we spent as I wasn’t on city council at that point in time. We were all surprised though when we found out how much we were spending in condo fees.” He explained that with the Condominium Agreement between the city and the hospital, the city owns the library and police department buildings, but not the land they sit on. “Once again, that was something that was pretty much a surprise to this council, that we didn’t own the land.”
Van Blaricom addressed attendees and said, “I agree with you guys. We have the best library system, building, etc. of anyplace that I have been. I have been to a number of them in the past few weeks just to see what they got. We don’t want to lose that.”
When speaking of concerns that the library once moved will have less space, Van Blaricom said, “Those decisions have been bantered around, but there is no decision that has been made. I do not know if you will come out with the exact same square footage. That is part of the deal of hiring an engineer.”
He said the current city hall building is not ADA compliant and it needs $150,000 worth of new roofing, which also helped the city come to its decision about the Bremer building purchase.
He said the hospital was willing to purchase the current library and police space. Ramin asked, “At what price?” Van Blaricom responded, “I don’t know that I heard the exact price, but it is pretty substantial. I think it was in the neighborhood of $450,000.”
Ramin said, “So originally as a community we spent 1.5 million on the library, maybe. The Friends of the Library have contributed $224,000 to the facility. This does not include the contributions of families and individuals to build the children’s areas, reading or coffee space. If we are getting back $450,000 and all things being equal, we are not getting a very good return on our investment.”
Van Blaricom said, “We are not getting a very good deal if we stay there either.”
He was asked what would happen with the current City Hall space. “If somebody is not willing to buy it and repurpose it, I’m guessing it will be torn down,” said Van Blaricom.
Gloria Lansin asked if the Bremer Bank building has been inspected. “I’m guessing that is probably going to be part of the purchase,” said Strohbusch.
“Guessing or expecting? I guess I have a problem that nobody knows about this. I’m sorry but you four are the Finance Committee. I would think you would have those numbers sitting in front of you,” said Lansin.
Van Blaricom held up a copy of one of the engineering proposals that was sitting in front of committee members. “This is the proposal. You are already about three weeks ahead of most of us. We are just looking at hiring the engineering firm,” he said.
Someone from the crowd asked, “When did you learn of all of this? We just heard it –bam.” “I know and we really got ripped in the paper because of it,” said Van Blaricom. “The end of July it got started,” he said.
Someone asked why wasn’t the community asked their thoughts? “Because the bank couldn’t make any announcements because they didn’t have land available. The hospital didn’t want to make any announcements without being approved by Health Partners,” said Van Blaricom.
He said it was important to the council that Bremer Bank stay and build a facility within Amery. Then he and Strohbusch disagreed on whether the bank said they would spend $5 million on a new facility in town, which is what Van Blaricom recalled, or $500,000, which is what Strohbusch thought.
Someone asked, “Have any other options besides this one option been explored or is this the option you are exploring?” To which Strohbusch replied, “This is the option we are exploring.” The attendee who asked then questioned, “Why?” Strohbusch said, “Because it is the only facility of size to put all of the facilities in one operation.”
Then someone asked, “Is it too late to explore other options?” Strohbusch said, “If someone wanted to bring a proposal to the city council, we would look at it.” An attendee said, “So it would have to be a proposal not an exploration of ideas?” “Yes,” responded Strohbusch.
John Thompson, Director of the IFLS library system, addressed the committee. He wondered what the role of the library board and staff would be when assessing the available space in the new area. He asked, “If the engineering firm determines the space is not adequate to hold all of the city facilities in one place, would the city be looking at alternatives after that?” Strohbusch said, “We are not at that point. I cannot give you a good answer.” Thompson said the timeline that has been bantered about sees the library moving this summer, he wondered if that was flexible? “We are taking the needs of the library into consideration, “ said Strohbusch. “You are asking questions I wish I knew answers to, but we are just not that far along in the process,” Strohbusch said. Van Blaricom said they would be taken library input into consideration.
When Thompson asked if the location of the library inside of the bubble of the new building was flexible, Strohbusch said, “You are several steps ahead of us and we are not ready to answer that.”
“Part of my job responsibility is helping consult with libraries building, planning is one of those areas so what I have been explaining to the library board in the last couple of weeks is wanting to advocate for the needs of the community. I think part of the angst of people is that if the library is going to move they want to go up not lateral or behind, so that is what I am going to be advising the library board moving forward,” said Thompson. “The seven people who sit at this table all feel the same way,” said Van Blaricom.
“Square footage and brick and mortar are very expensive, is it not?” Strohbusch asked Thompson. “We are trying to look at expenses five years down the road. Part of the reason I sit on this city council is so that his children, her children and your children have a good city,” said Strohbusch.
Thompson said, “Part of what I do is make sure that no library has to sacrifice.”
Wendy Dietrich, President of the library board said, “We hope as a library board we can be a part of the conversation going forward. One of the questions I have is if we can have a committee that would get to hear what is happening with representatives with each of the involved entities?”
“The city appropriates a certain amount to fund the library. We also have Act 150, where we get funds from counties to fund our library. I have a document that shows in 2009, city appropriations for the library were $196,631.00, 10 years later, in 2019, they were $200,000. Act 150 was $162,000 in 2009 and in 2019 the number increased to $225,000.00. So I would venture to say we are attracting people from around the county to our facility,” Dietrich said. She told the group the number of registered users for the library is 3839. Of that number, 1309 are city residents and 2530 are not.
Ashley Long approached the podium and said, “You quoted a number from 2017 for the HVAC repair, is there a current?”
“That would be done by the hospital,” said Van Blaricom.
“I have spoken with the CEO of the hospital and she said there is no difference in the HVAC needed for the hospital and the library, so I am frustrated with the misinformation and I would like to see the numbers that are driving the library out. You are quoting 2017 and I would encourage you to get something up to date. Debra Rudquist said there is no firm number on the HVAC. I would encourage the Finance Committee to look more in-depth if that is the reason you are going to transition,” said Long.
She then asked if there was money set aside for the project. “We are working on funding for this project,” said Strohbusch. “So, does that mean no?” asked an audience member.
“We are working on funding for this project,” Strohbusch repeated. “So currently there is no money set aside?” asked the same audience member.
“Yes or no?” she said. “Do we have a pot of money? No. Are we working on funding? Yes,” said Strohbusch.
Van Blaricom said the goal was to have the needs of the library, police and City Hall assessed by the February council meeting. “Will the pot of money be set aside by February?” was asked from the audience. “Like every major project that governments do, you can’t put money aside as it is illegal to tax for some things so there is never a pot of money for anything but normal operating expenses that go on throughout the year,” said Van Blaricom
Council member Sarah Flanum said, “For clarification, for the February meeting we plan to go through the engineers’ RFPs and make a recommendation to the council (from the Finance Committee) to approve the engineer. That does not mean that we are going to know anything besides that.”
It was asked if it was a possibility for the library to stay put until renovations were completed in the current Bremer building for less disruption to the library. “We can’t make promises. It would be my preference that the library be moved in the summer months when it is warm out,” said Strohbusch.
Another question that came up multiple times was whether or not the hospital has been asked if the land that the library and police buildings sit on could be purchased by the city.
“Has anybody ever asked that?” asked an audience member. “No,” said Strohbusch. Later in the evening when the same question was asked again, his answer changed. He later said they talked about it initially and the answer from the hospital years ago was “No.”
Van Blaricom said, “Do you remember who the mayor was when that took place? I rest my case.” It was then asked if it was something the Finance Committee would explore to which Tim Strohbusch said, “We don’t have a pot of money for that.”
When frustration arose again over the HVAC debate, an attendee said, “I am little confused.” Strohbusch replied, “We are only given the facts we were told. If the hospital is telling you something else, you can take that up with them.”