It’s a race against the clock to fund a $50 million city hall complex in Fridley, where some residents are at odds over whether to first have voters weigh in on the project.
Since the City Council gave the financing plan preliminary approval after a packed public hearing last month, an ad hoc group has been door knocking almost daily, working to muster signatures to petition for a referendum. They have until Dec. 14 to get at least 683 eligible voters to sign, which equals 5 percent of the votes cast in the last general election.
At the same time, those who support the new civic campus and oppose a referendum have created a website and taken to posting on social media. The group, known as “Fridley Citizens,” also has mailed postcards, passed out fliers and posted yard signs, urging residents to think twice before signing the petition.
“It’s a do-or-die kind of moment,” said Mandy Meisner, who belongs to the Fridley Citizens group.
For nearly three years, city officials have studied what to do with City Hall and the public works building, which are more than 60 years old. Constructing a brand-new complex, they say, would offer taxpayers more bang for the buck than undertaking an extensive patchwork of repairs.
“It’s many Band-Aids on top of other Band-Aids,” said Mayor Scott Lund.
Other cities have recently faced similar dilemmas, debating whether to remodel existing facilities or build anew. From Richfield to Shakopee, aging municipal structures across the suburbs are being spruced up or replaced.
Fridley city officials say time is crucial in terms of building costs and interest rates. A referendum, they say, may add as much as $5 million to the already hefty price tag. If an election isn’t necessary, construction on the new civic campus will begin in May 2017.
Cramped for space
If the plan moves forward, the city will build the civic complex off University Avenue on a portion of the old Columbia Arena site, which the Fridley Housing and Redevelopment Authority bought for $2.6 million in 2014. The complex would house the police, fire and public works departments, as well as City Hall.
Existing facilities have leaky roofs and inadequate storage and lack handicap accessibility in some areas. At the public works facility, some equipment must sit outside for lack of garage space, leaving snowplows and trucks exposed to the Minnesota weather.
Police have run out of room for evidence storage and must park their vehicles in undersized stalls. Bathroom usage also poses a problem, with a staff of sometimes 25 to 30 people having to share two toilets and a urinal, said Police Chief Brian Weierke.
The fire department faces similarly cramped quarters. On-duty firefighters sleep in their offices. “We’ve run out of space,” said Fire Chief John Berg.
And because of restrictions built into Fridley’s charter, the city is limited in the ways it can finance new construction or regular repairs, said City Manager Wally Wysopal. The city, he added, has kept the public involved in its civic campus plans through multiple workshops and open houses, as well as mailings.
If the levy receives final approval from City Council later this month, tax increases will pay for a maximum of $50.5 million in capital improvement bonds. For the owner of a Fridley home valued at $170,000, that means paying about $115 more a year in city property taxes, a 19 percent increase.
At last month’s public hearing, some expressed concerns about the high cost and moving City Hall from its current location off University Avenue, just south of the proposed site. Others, including Meisner, described the new civic complex as a worthwhile investment.
“It’s not even a question that something needs to be done,” Meisner said.
With the looming petition deadline, residents like Pam Reynolds said they’ll be going door-to-door, collecting signatures.
“We’re not saying we don’t want [the city] to build it, but voters should have a say in what’s happening,” Reynolds said.
While she declined to disclose how many signatures her group has collected so far, Reynolds said they’re shooting to gather more than the minimum number required.
If the petition draws enough signatures, the City Council can call for a special election, which could take place no sooner than March.