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LP forum nets plenty of ideas, but no clear solution for space needs

January 14, 2008

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

A public meeting in Lester Prairie to address space needs for the police department and city staff lacked consensus, but it definitely did not lack variety.

A group of 86 residents attended the meeting, and made suggestions that ranged from building a brand new city center that would accommodate all city departments, to doing nothing at all.

Some said the city needs to plan for growth, but others said they doubt the city will continue to grow.

Some residents made suggestions about city staff. Resident Ralph Machemehl said Lester Prairie needs to hire a city administrator, while resident Stan Ehrke suggested disbanding the police department and outsourcing some of the duties of city office staff.

The meeting was moderated by League of Minnesota Cities Field Representative Tom Thelen.

Thelen has spent 41 years working with local government, including nine years as city administrator for the City of Paynesville, and 32 years with the League of Minnesota Cities.

During the meeting, city employees presented some of the reasons why they believe more space is needed.

Police Chief Bob Carlson said the city’s population has increased by 43 percent, and the number of households has increased by 47 percent since the current police building was purchased in 1988.

Carlson said the city’s growth has increased the need for record and equipment storage.

Carlson said the secure evidence room is full, and the city storage space under the watertower is full.

Carlson explained that the police department and city offices share equipment such as a copier and mail machine to reduce costs.

“Several of the city employees are also taxpayers in Lester Prairie. No fancy or over-the-top requests have been made,” Carlson said.

Record storage was one of the primary space issues that was discussed.

City Clerk Marilyn Pawelk said many city records have already been moved out of city hall because there is no more space. She sometimes has to retrieve records from under the watertower.

Some residents questioned whether the volume of records could be reduced by using technology and storing some records electronically.

By statute, the city is required to keep records for a specified period of time. Pawelk said she recently disposed of about 10 boxes of records that were no longer needed to free up some space.

Assistant City Clerk Darla Simon said the remodeling that is in progress is only a short-term solution.

“What we are working with is just our current files. It is just not a good setup. We need a solution for today to give us the space we need to work,” Simon said.

Clinic building discussed

Much of the discussion during the meeting focused on the former clinic building.

Ehrke suggested that the city could purchase the building and move the city staff in without remodeling.

There were a variety of conflicting opinions about this suggestion.

Carlson said the staff has looked at the clinic building, and feels the layout would not be conducive to efficient operation.

“The offices are smaller than the restrooms at the current city hall,” Carlson said. He added that there would be no city council chambers in the clinic building.

There was a wide range of conflicting opinions regarding the actual net cost of the clinic building.

It was generally agreed that the list price of the building is $149,000. Some suggested the selling price would be considerably less than that, but others suggested that it would cost a lot more to remodel it.

“How much would it take to make this a viable facility?” asked School Board Member Fred Blaser.

A variety of opinions were expressed about the potential cost.

Resident Ed Mlynar said the clinic building needs a new roof, which he said would cost about $6,000.

Some people argued that if the city were to purchase the clinic building, it would be spending more than $149,000 on a building that does not meet the city’s needs, and would be, at best, a short-term solution.

Parking and handicap accessibility were among the issues that were brought up.

Ehrke said employers are not required to make a building handicap accessible until a specific employee has a need for accommodation.

Blaser said any new or remodeled building must meet the current code for handicap accessibility.

Ehrke went from saying the city should not spend any money on remodeling the clinic to saying it could expand the clinic building, and even purchase the house next to it to put in a municipal parking lot.

Critics said the clinic building currently has no parking lot, which is also a concern at the current city hall.

“When there is a big community event, there are no available parking spots on the street,” one resident commented.

“This also eliminates parking for downtown businesses, Council Member Ron Foust added.

What about a new building?

Some residents suggested the city should plan for the long-term, and build a new facility that would include space for the city staff, police department, and public works. One resident suggested that the facility could include space for a library.

Lester Prairie School Superintendent Joe Miller said the city should consider a combined facility that would include both school and city functions.

Miller said there are many more school activities than there were in the past, and the school needs another gym.

“We both deal with the same tax base. We should cooperate,” Miller said.

Some residents suggested that a new facility should be built where there is land to provide adequate parking and room for expansion, possibly near the new clinic building on the east side of the city.

Supporters of the new building said this would not only allow for adequate parking at the new city center, but would free up parking in the downtown area.

Machemehl said buying the clinic building was a good idea. He said experience has convinced him that it would take a long time for the city to act on purchasing a new building.

“I’m all for a new building, but it is going to take 20 years. We are so conservative in this town, we don’t want to spend a buck. That is how we got the city hall we’ve got now,” Machemehl said.

Mlynar said if the city bonded for a new $1 million city facility, it would cost each household $150 per year for 20 years.

Other ideas

In addition to remodeling the current city properties, buying the clinic, and building a new facility, some alternative ideas were suggested.

Ehrke suggested that the city could consider leasing space at the old Schwartz building.

Another resident asked about utilizing space at the old fire hall.

Informal opinion polls

Those in attendance were by no means a cross-section of the community, and represented less than 5 percent of the population, but Thelen asked for an informal show of hands to gauge opinions.

Of the 86 residents present, 31 indicated they would be in favor of purchasing the clinic building at a cost of $149,000. None were in favor of this option if the cost was increased to $300,000.

Building a new facility was the preference of 22 residents, and 28 supported simple remodeling of the existing buildings.

Questions that the city should address

Several questions were raised at the meeting, including:

• How much space does each department really need? True space needs must be clarified.

• What are state demographer’s estimates for population growth?

• Can the city afford to hire a city administrator? What would this person do, and where would they work?

• What is the city’s bonding capacity?

• What would be the total cost of each proposal?

• What would be the tax impact on city residents?

What’s next?

The meeting was an opportunity for residents to make suggestions, but it did not directly result in any council action.

Thelen suggested the city council should review the written comments from the meeting and research some of the questions.

One resident suggested the council should put together a task force to review the information.

Some residents suggested that the city staff who have to work in the space should be included in the process of determining space needs.

Thelen said an economic development authority could provide additional funding options for the city and reduce the burden on city taxpayers.

“It takes imagination,” Thelen said.