By Lynda Jensen
COKATO, MN Spooked by an uncertain economy, the Cokato City Council postponed its decision about a future fire hall expansion, over the protests of a fellow council member.
Nearly all the council members expressed reluctance to take on such a project right now, dismayed over recent reports of stock market tumbles and a banking crisis, except for mayoral candidate and Council Member Wayne Murphy.
Murphy pressed the council hard to approve the project for the full amount of $2 million; exasperated with the perceived long-term foot dragging and caution exercised by the council.
“Citizens put us in the position to make hard decisions like this,” Murphy said.
Nevertheless, Mayor Bruce Johnson admitted that he himself had lost funds in the economic turmoil and others were concerned about the timing and pricetag of a new fire hall; something echoed by people who attended the public hearing the week before; although the overall feedback was positive.
“The people of Cokato should have the chance to say yes or no,” Council Member Butch Amundsen said. He noted that the bond market might be too volatile to get a good rate. “With that kind of money, people should be able to express an opinion,” he added.
Regarding the volatile market, Johnson said “we might pay dearly to get that money.”
“Our job isn’t to save money on this project, but to save lives,” Murphy said.
Amundsen asked about changing the specifications. “Any possibility of looking at steel?” he asked committee member Chuck Miller. “Everything can be looked at,” Miller answered.
The committee wanted a brick-and-mortar structure because it would last longer, and be something the city could be proud of, Miller said.
“My personal feeling is we should have a referendum and let people decide,” Council Member Gordy Erickson said.
Council Member Carl Harju and Johnson, despite obviously wanting to approve the project, were reluctant to do so under the current financial conditions of the city’s constituents. Harju is a member of the ambulance department and abstained from some votes, but voted at least once with Murphy to press the issue.
Resident Gary Chamberlain attended the meeting and stressed what he previously said at the public hearing. “My chief concern is for the taxpayer,” he said. “Last Monday was the first time I’ve seen plans. I feel that this project can be done at much less cost.”
“I realize the need is there,” Chamberlain continued. However, he pays a water bill that is $143 per month and it’s frankly expensive to live in Cokato, he said. “I wish the taxpayers were more involved.”
An initial motion, made by Murphy, died for lack of a second to move forward with a capital improvement timeline that Ehlers set “as quickly as possible.”
This prompted Ken Bakke, the head of public works and a member of the fire department, to chide the council. “You haven’t resolved anything. Either go with Mr. Murphy, or make another motion,” he suggested.
Johnson made a motion to postpone the subject. More discussion ensued.
There were other issues about the project that were as yet unanswered. Amundsen asked if the committee did, in fact, have a recommendation out of the three sites chosen. “Yes and no,” committee member Chuck Miller said. “Negotiations have stalled (with the committee and the land owner),” Miller said.
“Then, why is there a purchase agreement in the council packet?” Amundsen asked, referring to an agreement for the Highway 12 and Third St. East location for $2.60 per foot. This location is the former Dave’s Auto site, or what is now Excel Concrete (not the old creamery location, as noted in last week’s article). The parcel is owned by Reed and Emily Carlson.
The other two parcels being considered are the Keskey property, by First St. and Century Ave., and the site by Broadway and Seventh St. (John Deere site).
Murphy pressed the council about a memo that was supposed to be sent to them from Ehlers & Associates that contained a timeline and financial impact numbers. This memo was not received by other council members. Administrator Don Levens indicated that he did not receive the memo.
“We don’t vote on public works projects,” Murphy protested, saying that elected officials should simply make the best decisions they feel necessary. “We need to move forward.”
Amundsen said there is a big difference between a sewage plant and fire hall, since one is revenue-generating and the other is not.
“They’re apples and oranges,” Murphy said.
“That’s right. They’re totally different,” Amundsen said.
Throughout the meeting, Murphy pressed the council to come up with a five-year capital improvement plan that would take care of the subject long term.
Later in the meeting, the council then approved another similar motion that placed the item on the agenda for the council’s regular meeting tonight; although it was unclear whether it would be an action item or not, with Clerk Peggy Carlson herself being unsure of this, due to the sporadic nature of the conversation.
“It behooves us to look at the information from Ehlers,” Amundsen reflected.
At a few different times during the meeting, Johnson and Murphy sparred over the condition of the fire hall and immediacy of its needed replacement. “We have a fire hall that’s substandard,” Murphy said. “Substandard but not falling down,” Johnson said.
At various times through the meeting, council members acknowledged the hard work and commitment of the public safety committee members. Harju, Amundsen and Murphy made special note of this.
The meeting ended on an unusual note, since Murphy visibly frustrated and passionate about the subject abruptly stood up in the middle of discussion, and walked out of the meeting. He did not return to his seat, despite the fact that the council took action on other agenda items and about 15 to 20 minutes passed. The meeting ended with Murphy absent from his seat; although he did not leave the building. He later told the Enterprise that he merely went to get some water. (The following correction printed Oct. 20: Regarding the Cokato City Council meeting reported in the Oct. 13 issue: the videotape was reviewed and Council Member Wayne Murphy left his seat for a only a few minutes, not 15-20 minutes as it was reported. He did not miss any council action and was, in fact, at his seat when the meeting ended.
It should be noted that Murphy is not associated with any of the three parcels as a Realtor, and does not represent any of the parcels due to his profession. If this was so, he would have disclaimed that as such, he told the Enterprise Dispatch.
Odds and ends
In other matters, the council:
• heard a request by the Forsman Farms that they plan to move part of operations outside of town, but wish to haul their wastewater back into town for the city to process. A meter will be set up. This was deemed fine.
• reviewed a code of conduct and ethics draft when it comes to goods and services being bought or sold by the city from council members and other intimate parties. It will be sent to the attorney for fine tuning.
• heard from State Rep. Dean Urdahl that other cities were also caught with an extremely late bill presented by MnDOT regarding Highway 12 reconstruction done many years ago. Howard Lake was presented a bill for $90,000, Montrose for $250,000, with other amounts given to Waverly and Dassel.
• noted that Kennedy and Graven have completed the process under state statute for the hazardous property at 250-290 Millard. No further paperwork is necessary.
• noted there would be an informational meeting for rental property owners Oct. 9.
• were informed by Wright County of the final payment for the CSAH 3 bituminous overlay in the amount of $42,079. The total amount paid to date has been $567,813.