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Deja vote: Mayor casts deciding vote, council approves VFW MOU

Since an emotional approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city of New Richmond and VFW Post 10818 / St. Croix County in July to transfer 5.11 acres of land located in Freedom Park to the Post in preparation for construction of the Freedom Park Center, lawyers have been going back and forth attempting to craft language and terms acceptable to both parties.

Believing that had been accomplished, the MOU again came before the council at the Monday, Oct. 8 meeting for final approval.

Again that approval was contested by council members Mike Montello and Scottie Ard as well as New Richmond citizens John Walsh and Paul Kittel speaking on behalf of a group of concerned residents.

Montello crafted his questions around whether there is an actual need for the project, the "unique" financial nature of the project and the future financial commitment the project could present to the city for many years to come.

"We had a conversation the last time we met about projects that the city has deemed 'critical' and 'very important.' There's been some discussion that the city may not have the financial appetite to do those projects. And this particular project isn't either of those categories. So I don't understand why we are making a commitment, whether it's binding this council or future councils, as you look at the length of time this may take, to funding something that still hasn't been deemed to pass the critical or very important (test). That's not the list that it's on and we don't have funding in place to do projects that have reached that level. I don't see anywhere in city history a financial arrangement with a nonprofit of this scope. And we have a number of agencies and organizations within the city of New Richmond that certainly do the good work that the VFW does, but that the city hasn't made this type of financial arrangement with. I'm not sure what the need is?" questioned Montello.

Montello later suggested a three-question litmus test to which the project should be submitted. Do I need it? Can I sell it? How much will it cost me to keep it?

Montello questioned the need for a new senior center which has been proposed as part of the building project and to suggest other, possibly more useful, public private partnerships including a new police garage (which is on the CIP list of projects). The idea with the garage being that it could be shared space, maybe even constructed with those multiple purposes in mind.

Ard agreed with Montello's concerns and added two of her own.

Ard noted that the IRT (Innovative Readiness Training) application being submitted by the Post to the Department of Defense requires the specified project must serve the community. The VFW Post by itself does not satisfy that requirement and Ard contended that explains the addition of the senior center to the project.

"We do not have a letter from the ARDC (Aging & Disability Resource Center) stating that they are committing to this project, that they would move out of City Hall and move into this new project. That is of great concern," said Ard. "Why are we racing so quickly on this? The VFW in their intent to provide a building and services, I believe has moved too quickly and I believe we are moving too quickly. We have a housing meeting tomorrow to address the lack of affordable housing in the city of New Richmond. And yet we're looking at investing an exorbitant amount of materials, time and money into a project that will not serve the entirety of the community."

Mayor Fred Horne argued to let the public make the decision with their pocketbooks.

"The public is going to decide if this gets built. If the public supports the project and makes the donations ... The public decides this project," said Horne.

Alderman Jim Zajkowski noted a few compromises added to the MOU to address a number of the Council's concerns including a 25-year lease, annual reviews and an option at five years to return the property to the city.

"They (VFW) have been working on this for two years now. One of our alderman objected to a 99-year lease. Well now that has been limited to 25-year increments and then we'll review it again so future councils can speak on that. Another alderman wanted reviews but said 10 years was too long. So there will be annual reviews and if after five years, this project hasn't gone anywhere, they can give that land back to the city. I'm sure they will know in five years whether it's going to happen or not. That's why I'm supporting this project," said Zajkowski.

Walsh took the podium as a spokesperson for a group of concerned citizens and added to the list of objections already cited by Montello and Ard.

Walsh cited:

• A lack of documentation for the purported in-kind donations

• By providing space for activities like weddings and other celebrations, the city would essentially be underwriting competition for other businesses competing for those same opportunities

• The cost of sewer, water and streets estimated by a council member to be up to $1 million has not been accounted for

• The value of the 5.1 acres being given to the VFW Walsh estimated at $125,000

• The project benefits a very small percentage of the population while the VFW is guaranteed use of roughly a third of the building in 25-year increments

• Walsh argued due to falling membership, the VFW has expanded its membership to include veterans from neighboring communities none of whom pay property taxes to New Richmond, which will be providing the main source of dollars to sustain the property

• The location is questionable when it comes to serving seniors because it is 1 to 3 miles from the rest of the city and would require transportation not available to many seniors.

Walsh concluded by adding that his group has estimated that at least 90 percent of the citizens living in New Richmond, if fully informed, would be against this proposed situation. Walsh encouraged the Council to reconsider the "taxpayer giveaway."

American Legion member Paul Kittel took the podium and added to the list of concerns noting that the city already has a veteran's center in the American Legion building. He also argued that the purpose of an IRT is training and suggested the tradesmen provided through an IRT might not be as experienced as the VFW is expecting. Kittel concluded that ultimately the building will become the city's responsibility at additional taxpayer expense.

In the end, it was deja vote, with the mayor once again casting the deciding vote approving the MOU. For the record, Zajkowski, Volkert, Kittle and Horne voted in favor of the the MOU opposed by Jackson, Montello and Ard.

Other business

• The council approved a new fundraising policy designed to ensure transparency and ethical practices, assist with proper recording and accounting of donated funds, insure compliance with local ordinances as well as legal and fiduciary responsibilities, and promote general awareness to help avoid donor fatigue. The policy will apply to any individual or group raising money on behalf of a city department, department initiative or project.

• Council members approved an MOU granting the Will's Playground group permission to pursue a new playground in Mary Park. MSA Professional Services is scheduled to survey the park and make recommendations moving forward.

• Council members tabled their decision on hiring a contractor to handle the community's recycling needs until they have an opportunity to review more closely the terms and consequences of the proposal from Advanced Disposal at their next work session, Oct. 22.