COLUMBUS — City officials are putting the proposed library/cultural arts center on the back burner as they shift the focus to other priority items that also require voter approval.
Mayor Jim Bulkley outlined an updated schedule for the library and public safety projects and a vote to restore local economic development money during an editorial printed in Saturday’s edition of The Telegram.
The timeline he presented pushes a potential second vote on a library bond issue to November 2020, while moving the planned public safety improvements to the top of the priorities list and setting a November 2018 date for local residents to decide whether to reallocate a portion of the local 1 percent sales tax to economic development projects.
Bulkley said city staff decided it would be best to focus on one ballot issue at a time, which led to conversations with city council members about how to prioritize the three items.
“It was a discussion with all of the council to try to get comfort,” said Bulkley, adding that staggering the ballot issues will also give the public more clarity about what they’re voting on.
Of course, “None of this is set in stone,” Bulkley said of the proposed election dates.
The public safety project, which could combine the downtown fire and police stations at a single location, landed at the top of the priorities list.
City council members voted in June 2016 to pay Prochaska & Associates up to $150,000 to study the long-term options for the police and fire departments, including the possibility of constructing a shared facility.
However, the Omaha-based design consultant has yet to present any findings.
“We have had a few hiccups with our consultant that have slowed our progress and we are addressing that,” Bulkley wrote in his editorial.
The public safety study will compare the costs of building a joint facility, separate police and fire stations or a new main fire station with renovations occurring at the police station. Potential locations for each option will also be identified.
Once a final decision is made, the project must be designed before a contractor is hired.
Columbus residents voted in May 2016 to extend the local half-percent sales tax to finance the public safety improvements, but another vote is needed to issue bonds to pay for the work.
The updated schedule has the bond vote occurring in May 2018, although Bulkley noted this date “isn’t that far away.”
City officials previously looked at property near Columbus Municipal Airport for the joint public safety building and also considered the possibility of renovating the former Wal-Mart building at 3620 23rd St.
In 2014, Columbus-based RVW Inc. put the cost of building a joint fire/police station at $16.32 million for a 72,000-square-foot facility, with the price tag dropping by about $650,000 to renovate the Wal-Mart space.
The downtown fire station is currently located in the decades-old former city auditorium, which has deteriorated over the years, and the police department operates from a former bank building the city purchased more than 20 years ago.
Both stations need significant improvements, according to the local chiefs, as well as additional space.
The priorities list calls for a November 2018 vote on whether to funnel money from the existing 1 percent local sales tax into the city’s economic development fund.
The economic development plan, approved by voters in 2006 and initiated the following year, is used to support local projects mainly through no-interest loans or loans that are forgiven if certain hiring thresholds are met.
Under the plan, one-tenth of the 1 percent sales tax, up to $300,000 annually, was deposited into the fund, totaling nearly $3 million over 10 years.
However, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the tax in May 2016, the economic development fund wasn’t included among the areas supported by the revenue. Another vote must be held before money can be allocated to the plan again.
“I think LB840 is a tool Columbus can use for many things,” Bulkley said. “It’s been very helpful for us with business development.”
Money from the plan, often referred to as LB840 funds after the legislative bill that authorized communities to spend sales tax revenue on economic development, is reserved mainly for hard costs such as land, building and equipment purchases or utility infrastructure. It can also be used for job training, but not to pay wages or cover marketing expenses.
The goal is to assist existing businesses looking to expand or help bring new companies to Columbus, both of which lead to job creation.
Columbus City Council also voted earlier this year to add workforce housing to the list of projects eligible for economic development money.
“And we all know housing is an issue in Columbus,” Bulkley said.
The fund’s large balance — roughly $2 million — played a part in city officials’ decision to stop diverting sales tax revenue into the account, but the mayor believes it’s important to maintain a healthy balance so Columbus is in position to capitalize on projects moving forward.
Library/cultural arts center
A second attempt to issue bonds for the proposed library/cultural arts wouldn’t occur until November 2020 under the updated plan.
Bulkley said this schedule gives library officials time to gather and evaluate public input, continue raising money and make any design changes needed to increase support for the project.
“They need to do their homework and let the public take a deep breath,” Bulkley said.
Columbus residents voted 1,768 to 1,517 in April against issuing up to $8.5 million in bonds to pay for a roughly 45,000-square-foot library/cultural arts center along 14th Street between 23rd and 24th avenues. The bonds would have been repaid with revenue from the half-cent sales tax voters already extended in May 2016.
The rejected plan had an estimated price tag of $16 million, but the goal is to cover at least half the construction costs with private donations, grants and library foundation money. So far, the private fundraising effort led by the library foundation has secured approximately $5.3 million.
Surveys are currently being conducted to gather public input on the project — the online version can be found at columbusne.us/library — then public meetings and focus groups will be organized to refine the design.
Bulkley said the 300-seat auditorium included in the original design has already been identified by some respondents as something they can live without. The design also includes a more-visible art gallery, makerspace and additional room to expand the library collection.
“We need a vibrant library that’s very functional,” Bulkley said of the plan moving forward.