Committee Green Lights Plan for $36 Million Public Safety complex

A city of La Crosse committee on Thursday backed a four year capital projects budget that includes the $36 million plan to build a new police and fire complex.

The proposal now moves to the common council meeting next Thursday for a vote. However, the council is almost certain to vote in favor of the project as part of the overall $314 million capital projects budget for 2021-25, although approval of the plan would still be a preliminary step.

The first part of the process of building the new complex would occur in 2021, with a proposal to borrow $1 million to purchase property for the project. The plan then calls for borrowing of $25 million in 2023 to fund the construction of the complex, followed by a further $10 million in 2024

The proposed location for the project is in the block bound by Ferry Street, Fourth Street, Market Street and Fifth Avenue, according to a memo written by Mayor Tim Kabat.

At Thursday’s finance and personnel committee meeting, council member Doug Happel said the planned location in what he described as “probably the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhood” was perfect, as it would improve public safety in the area.

However, council member Jessica Olson said it should not be taken for granted that the community would welcome a new and large law enforcement presence. The council should be “very sensitive” to those concerns, she added.

Fire Chief Ken Gilliam described the $1 million that would be borrowed in 2021 for the proposal, if approved, as “seed money” for the overall project.

“Nothing will be done in secret,” he added, with the project still requiring multiple approvals and opportunities for public input.

Happel also noted that in his view the public had already been given plenty of opportunities to review and give input on the plan to build the joint police and fire station.

“None of this has been hidden whatsoever. The task force was public. The council meetings were public. The entire capital projects budget was public before the plan commission,” he said.

The task force Happel was referring to was formed in 2017 and dissolved in 2018. It was set up to investigate the longstanding need to update the city’s aging fire stations. It was during that process that the idea of having a combined police and fire station was developed.

Alexandra Gonzalez, a member of the public who spoke at Thursday’s committee meeting, questioned the large outlays of money in the capital improvement plan at a time when “people are facing eviction, people are facing job loss.” 

“Why are we not setting up funds for those people,” Gonzalez said. “Kind of like a food pantry, if you need help it’s there.”

The committee also approved the creation of several new TIDs (Tax Increment Districts) at Thursday’s meeting. Check back to The La Crosse Independent for more on that story over the weekend.

Both the proposed TID districts and the capital project budget, including the police and fire complex plan, now move to the common council meeting scheduled for 6 p.m., Thursday, July 9.

By Eric Timmons. Top image: Fire chief Ken Gilliam speaks during Thursday’s virtual finance and personnel committee meeting.

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