So much is happening in and around Columbus it is hard for me to know where to begin.
As we start to reopen our City facilities and businesses to everyone I can assure you that you will be excited about all of the activities happening in our community.
Yes, City facilities have reopened to the public. City Hall, Police, Fire all opened on June 15th. The Library opened on June 22nd and the Aquatic Center and CAT will start up on June 29th. With all of these facilities, we ask the public to wear masks when visiting. This is a request and not mandated, but we truly believe in the value of masks to everyone so we ask for your cooperation. You might also encounter shorten times or restrictions on hours. Each facility might have something different so please check with the City web site or call the facility to get the particulars.
Along with our buildings opening all of our outdoor venues are open. Our baseball fields, softball fields, parks and playgrounds have opened and began to see activities. Soccer fields will open on July 1. We have posted COVID-19 signs in and around all of the City properties informing the public of the potential spread of the virus while using the area. But it is so nice to see our youth out enjoying a game of baseball or softball. I think everyone was ready!
As mentioned earlier the Aquatic Center will open June 29th. Although this isn’t like opening the Pawnee Plunge this does give our community a pool to enjoy this summer. The new Splash Pad at Glur Park is also open. Many of our surrounding communities are having no swimming. The Aquatic Center at least gives us a swimming option.
Let me answer your question before you ask. Why isn’t the Plunge opening? The short quick answer-we could not get enough qualified people to staff the facility. The Council made the decision not to open the Plunge in early May because the DHM in place at the time would not allow pools to open and the possibility of that changing looked bleak. We owed it to our potential hires to let them know what we were thinking about and allow them to look at different employment opportunities.
The DHM that is now in place does allow pools to open. Seeing that this was coming, we reached out to our hiring pool and found that the majority had found other employment. We placed new ads and touched bases with every resource we could but still could not find enough qualified staff to hire. Thus, the position we are in today. No one is more disappointed than I am that the Plunge will sit idle this season. But we tried hard and were not able to make this happen.
As we use our parks, ball fields, and pools again we cannot forget that COVID-19 has not gone away. We must be vigilant about the virus and act accordingly. I have said many times-“we must use common sense.” This includes wearing masks in crowded places, trying to maintain social distancing, and being respectful of those most vulnerable. Working together we can win this fight.
Since my last writing, we have moved into our new Fire Station. Because of COVID-19, we could only have a small ceremony that welcomed our Firefighters into their new home. It is a beautiful facility and a very functional building. My thanks go out to BD Construction and the many subcontractors that worked with BD to complete this project. This facility will serve our community for generations to come.
What about the old Fire Station? At the 6-15-2020 Council meeting, we voted to seek bids for the demolition of this along with the adjacent Community Center. It will be great to see these structures go and open up this area for new opportunities. Along with this, we have approved the hiring of an architect to bring our south side station, Charlie Louis, up to where it can become a 24/7 staffed facility. We will gradually move toward staffing this in upcoming years. We are constantly evolving to provide the necessary protection to our community.
The City is abuzz with activities. The recent opening of Freddie’s, the announcement of a Starbucks coming to town and so much more. A lot of this is happening in and around the old Walmart, where just 2-3 years ago it was a dying property with little hope of improving. Then in steps, a developer with a vision, the help of TIF financing, and boom things are transformed.
But I’m not just referring to the old Walmart area. Look at the entire stretch of highway. From our new Fire Station, which greets all guests coming in from the west. To the new Grandville office and commercial space. To the remodeled strip mall featuring Goodwill, I-Dance, China Buffet, and our Hometown Sears. The new Foreman Lumber and then up to Bomgaars, Hampton Inn, Freddie’s, and more. What an awesome transformation.
City staff is busy preparing for our upcoming budget discussions. This time of year Department heads put together their needs and desires and bring them to the Council. We ask questions and challenge needs and look for justifications to come up with a workable budget. Many hours go into this effort trying to balance our needs with our revenues. It’s not easy and not everyone gets what they want.
Speaking of revenues our sales tax plays a huge part in the City’s income picture. And the Covid-19 issue has had us holding our breath not knowing where revenue levels might be. I am happy to say that we took a hit with sales tax revenue BUT we did better than expected. April’s revenue, which should be the worst that we see, was down 22% from last year's numbers. But it was actually very close to April of the previous 3-4 years and better than the amount budgeted for. We expect May to get better and see us slowly climbing back to pre-COVID times.
This in itself speaks to the culture that we have at City Hall. We plan conservatively, we respect your dollar, and always ask “is it nice or is it needed.” To have a 22% reduction and still be near budgeted projections speaks to how well we plan. It also says that Columbus was doing better than expected before COVID-19. And that is another reason I’m confident we will recover soon.
Sometimes even in the worst of times, something really good can happen. One such example is interest rates. Because of what COVID has done to our economy interest rates going very low are looked at as a means to stimulate our economy. Seeing this opportunity Staff began looking at what opportunities were available to us. Working with DA Davidson, our bond counsel, Finance Director Heather Lindsley and Administrator Tara Vasicek worked diligently, within a very small window, to see what could be accomplished. The results were the refinancing of 3 bond issues. By refinancing and issuing the refunding bonds, the City of Columbus will save $1,681,264.00 in interest cost. I cannot say enough thanking Staff for seeing this opportunity, getting it done within the window of time available, and saving the City huge dollars.
I would be remised if I didn’t acknowledge the turmoil and conflict occurring around our country. We are so blessed to live in Columbus, Nebraska. We are a community growing more diverse by the day and overall I believe we are accepting more and embracing this change. Can we do more-absolutely! And we need to. We can not standstill. It has been said by many “children do not see race, gender, or handicap, they just see the person.” We need to learn more from our children.
Our community thrives because of our diverse economic manufacturing base. This base requires diverse people to fill all of the positions available. These diverse people come from various backgrounds and cultures. Just like my grandparents and many of your grandparents. It is upon each of us to reach out, welcome, and get along with our neighbors. That’s what makes Columbus great.
Something Good Columbus!
Jim Bulkley is the mayor of Columbus.
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