Race for Mayor: The $36 Million Question

By Eric Timmons

La Crosse’s next mayor will face the task of shepherding the proposed $36 million police and fire complex on Fifth and Market streets closer to reality, or pumping the brakes on the project.

The immense and complex proposal remains at a preliminary stage, with $1 million budgeted for 2021 for land acquisition. The final cost of the development could be higher, but the council also will have opportunities to reduce its size, or cancel it completely. Among candidates jockeying for position in the mayoral race, there are diverging opinions on the project, although most are avoiding taking a firm position at this early stage.

Earlier this year, the council tentatively approved funding for the “law enforcement center,” as it is called in the city’s five year capital improvement plan (link here – see page 23). But the genesis of the idea goes back to the city’s Fire Station Planning Task Force, which met over 2017-18 to assess the fire department’s building needs. Jessica Olson, a current member of the council and a candidate for mayor, sat on that committee. She’s now calling for a reevaluation of the overall project.

“We need a re-set,” she said, adding that it was unclear how the focus of the task force on the city’s aging fire houses “morphed” into the current proposal for a combined police and fire station.

“We need to slow down, reach out to neighborhood associations, community groups, and residents along with outside experts and, of course, representatives from police and fire,” Olson said.

The drive for the new complex is fueled by the need to update the city’s Fire Station #1 on Market Street, which was built in 1967. As mayoral candidate and current council president Martin Gaul noted, “the building will need to be replaced in the future given the age and limitations of the structure.” But the council has also included $850,000 in its capital improvement plan for 2021 for “work necessary to extend the life cycle of Station #1,” Gaul said.

At the same time as the impetus for improvements to the fire department’s buildings has grown, a space needs assessment found the current police station “to be far short of current and future needs,” according to Gaul.

“It found the current facility lacks records space, evidence space, training facilities, has no female locker room or facilities to house animals (K9),” he said.

Fire Station #1, close to downtown La Crosse.

By developing a combined police and fire complex, the city could solve two problems at once, potentially creating some savings, while following a path other cities have taken to combine public safety services under one roof. However, the project raises questions about the city’s spending priorities, and would show a commitment to maintaining a large police department, possibly with room to grow even bigger, at a time when many are calling for police spending to be reduced.

Mitch Reynolds, a mayoral candidate who has not served on the council, noted there are 67% more members of the police department now than in 1970 when La Crosse City Hall was built. That’s despite the fact that the city’s population has barely grown since then. Crime rates have also generally been on a downward trajectory in La Crosse and across most of the country for decades. But police, in La Crosse as elsewhere, continue to consume the largest part of municipal departmental spending. Reynolds acknowledges that police need more space than their current building provides, but appears skeptical of the public safety complex plan.

“Should we spend $36 million on a new public safety facility? Extremely doubtful,” Reynolds wrote on his campaign website.

But, he left the door open to supporting spending on bigger police and improved fire facilities by noting that there is “no real plan to either support or not support” at this point. A “consideration of space needs is not something to be completely ignored, either,” he added.

Future Priorities

A firm commitment for or against the project would give voters an idea of a candidate’s priorities, particularly when it comes to the question of police spending. Gaul comes closest to endorsing the plan for the combined police and fire station by saying said he would continue the project along its current trajectory if he’s elected mayor.

“Should I become mayor I will continue in the same general direction knowing full well that final decisions on this project will most likely not occur within my four year term,” he said.

Funding for the project would come through borrowing spread over the next four years, adding up to the $36 million total. But the different steps would require approval from the council. At present, the city can borrow at low interest rates. That does not mean doing so is an easy sell to the public at a time when many are facing financial hardship due to the pandemic. For example, Chris Stolpa, another candidate for mayor, said he could not support the project at this moment because of the current economic conditions.

“The bottom line is that we do need to make sure our civil services are up to date and effective; however, I think any ideas that propose this magnitude of spending need to be halted until our small businesses are back on their feet, and our community is back to the age of prosperity,” he said.

Better informing the public about the project is a priority for Olson. Whether the current $36 million plan for the Fifth and Market streets site is the best option remains an “open question,” she said.

“As Mayor, I would hold public information sessions, virtually until we could do in-person sessions, to explain the needs and challenges we are seeking to resolve, offer ideas, concepts, illustrations, and examples from other communities, and solicit feedback and input from stakeholders,” Olson said.

*In addition to Gaul, Olson, Stolpa and Reynolds, Vicki Markussen, Greg Saliaras, and Sam Schneider have also publicly declared runs for mayor. But, as of Tuesday, only Gaul, Olson, Reynolds, Schneider and Markussen had filed nomination papers. A runoff election for mayor is likely in February, ahead of the April election. Incumbent Tim Kabat is not seeking reelection. We hope to give all the candidates opportunity to air their views on important topics in the run-up to the elections.

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