Rockford Council works on funding, time-line, for major improvements

Prior to its March 26 meeting, the Rockford City Council and staff met with the city’s financial advisor, Shannon Sweeney, to discuss the financial picture relating to the city’s future projects in a workshop.

Specific discussion items included the city’s existing debt, a Capitol Improvement Plan for street and utility reconstruction, and estimates for improvements needed to efficiently manage the wastewater treatment plant and bring it up to newly mandated MPC compliance standards.

A table was included in the discussion that outlined the city’s existing debt, and the annual repayment schedule. The schedule includes the timing of debt satisfaction, something that staff and council are trying to utilize in determining the timing and scope of some projects (or phases of), but in some cases necessity dictates the when they need to begin.

Street and utility improvements have been a point of discussion for the last couple of years, but increasing water main breaks — costly at several thousands dollars per repair, unpredictable and inconvenient — have pushed this project to high priority. Staff recommended a long-term solution, replacing the old utility mains (over a half century old) with new and improved equipment. The proposed plan would section off portions of the city for work each year, beginning as early as 2014. The council can, upon ordering the project, choose to help fund these improvements through partial assessment or a tax levy increase. The council is not at that stage yet, but does recognize the need to begin street and utility improvements.

In the case of the wastewater management improvements and construction, normal repairs and additional storage space are being rolled into a project to manage phosphorus reduction as new state regulations dictate, and this work is also facing a deadline that requires work to begin shortly. Some funding is available for this project as it pertains to the mandated element.

Another item on the workshop agenda was the event center; a multi-use building that would replace the Lions building in Riverside Park. Time ran out to address it in length at the workshop, but the item was also on the agenda for the council meeting that followed.

On the heels of the workshop, the event center project was met with additional scrutiny.

The construction of a city event center has been a council discussion on, and off, for several years with cost repeatedly coming in as the factor that has tabled previous consideration. The latest look at bringing this project to fruition included plans and estimates for a pre-engineered steel structure that would include a full service kitchen and space for 200 guests. Months of negotiations with CPMI (the construction management firm the city has been working with) have brought the numbers down on the project, which is expected to come in at just under $1.3 million in construction costs. The project is as at the point where it could be moved forward by the council, by ordering plans and specs, but questions, and some concerns over financing it, are hanging over a final decision.

As discussed, there are points in favor of building presently including historically low interest rates. Several surrounding communities have event, or community, centers that can accommodate large gatherings like weddings, corporate functions or reunions. While Rockford’s main attraction is Riverside Park, and it gets a lot of traffic, its only indoor meeting area is the Lions building which has a small capacity and is considered to be in very poor condition.

A very preliminary cost projection, using 1.4 million as the funding amount, indicates that covering an annual payment of $145,000 could result in as much as a 10% increase in the annual tax levy.

Councilor Jeannette Graner expressed concern over taking on the cost of the project at this time suggesting that a levy increase could pose hardship for some residents.

Councilor Rick Martinson said that he understood the rationale behind Graner’s concerns, but expressed his opinion that if the city lost momentum this time, the project may not go forward at all. Martinson said that an event center would be a great addition to the community, and has been supportive of this outcome throughout the process.

No action was taken regarding the event center project. Staff was directed to contact Sweeney to see what options are available to the city in funding this project, at which time the council will further discuss its timing and feasibility.

The next regular meeting of the Rockford City Council is Tuesday, April 9, at 7 p.m. at the Rockford City Hall, 6031 Main St.