LF Council asked for direction on capital improvement plan

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

Little Falls city staff asked the Council for direction in a five-year capital improvement plan for road construction.

During its Feb. 4 work session, Public Works Director Jerry Lochner said in 2012, the city had spent about $70,000 for the inlay of blacktop on 10 city blocks. Property owners are not assessed for this type of work, as it is considered part of the city’s maintenance costs, Lochner said.

Last year, street repair was done on Eighth Street Northwest, 13th Street Northeast and a couple of blocks near Key Row.

This year, $70,000 is allocated in the city’s budget for street repair and maintenance.

However, Lochner said, several areas are in need of more than blacktop overlay, including Third Street Northeast and Third Street Southeast.

“If you’re going to put money into blacktop and curb and gutter (on Third Street Northeast and Southeast) — which is all shot and beyond its life expectancy — or First Avenue Northwest (in front of the Chamber of Commerce), you should look at doing some of the underground work,” Lochner said.

With the underground work including replacing sanitary sewer, water mains, storm sewer and sidewalks (if there are any), just two blocks on Third Street Northeast would cost in the $350,000 range, he said.

Total reconstruction of three blocks would near $500,000.

Lochner also addressed blocks of gravel streets still in the city.

Gravel streets remain in the far northeast corner of the city near the Chief Hole in the Day Industrial park. On the west side, gravel remains on 13th Street Southwest and several avenues.

Blacktop, curb and gutter may cost $150,000 for two blocks.

“It’s $80,000 for one block when we do a smaller section,” he said.

The question the Council needed to consider when addressing the needs of the community, he said, was whether the amount of money in the budget should be used to overlay blacktop on a couple of blocks on Third Street Northeast and one block on First Street Northwest, or to spend $600,000 – $700,000 for complete reconstruction.

The city would need to bond to spend that kind of money.

“If we’re going to do 10 blocks of overlays per year, where are we going to start and where are we going to go?” he asked.

Lochner said a plan could be put together to spend money on 10 overlays a year, and possibly use state aid funding to spend $300,000 or $400,000 in areas to “catch up.”

State aid funding is the city’s portion of state gas tax money, he said.

Some state aid funding has been set aside for new streetlights downtown, he said.

“But, if we want to do mill and overlays in other parts of town, we need to have some idea of what we’re talking about for total costs,” he said.

A lot of maintenance was being done for a few years until the city hit its budget shortfall a few years ago, Lochner said.

“We’ve done a lot of overlays and maintenance, especially on the west side,” he said. “Now we need to do something on the east side.”

Council Member At Large Brian-Paul Crowder noted many roads had been done during his tenure on the Council.

“It’s a shame there are gravel roads in our town,” he said. “One of the worst roads — and we should be very ashamed of this road — is by the Chamber. People come into our community and go to the Chamber and that’s what they see. Somebody is going to get hurt on that road; that’s not good.”

Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem said the problems on First Street Northwest have come before the Council a couple of times.

“Landowners in that area come and just want an overlay,” she said. “But to put that money into an overlay and not do the sewer system is just ridiculous,” noting residents in the area complained of sewer problems.

“The bigger picture is we need to spend some time on this and decide if you want to spend some money to do First Street Northwest, or to do a part of Third Street Northeast and Third Street Southeast,” said Lochner.

In his opinion, if the underground utilities were not repaired, “You’ll be digging these up in a few years,” Lochner said.

“You don’t have to do it. You can just overlay on some of those and hope that it’s going to last 10 or 15 years,” he said. “But that’s a decision the Council must make and discuss. This is the start of that process.”

Lochner encouraged the Council to drive some of the roads in question, to decide what kind of work would be done over a five-year period.

“A number of projects have been completed from the 2009 plan until today,” he said. “We need to update this and come up with another plan that’s going to fix our roads and underground utilities in a reasonable and cost effective manner.”

VanRisseghem said she felt Third Street couldn’t wait 10 years until replacing the underground utilities.

“I’ve got to believe that road is just as bad as the one in front of the Chamber,” she said.

“I think business people pay a lot more taxes than residential people do. We did 13th Street Northeast last year, which helped,” said Lochner. “If we’re not going to do underground, then let’s do the overlay and hope it lasts 10 – 15 years. But that’s a decision the Council needs to make.

“We’ll give you the facts and numbers, but you need to set a plan in place,” he said.

If the Council decides to spend money for a project, the first question is whether it wants to go deeper into debt.

City Administrator Dan Vogt pointed to the city’s debt levy requirement, which during budget planning he said makes up half of the city’s levy.

After a peak of just more than $1.74 million, the levy begins to come down in 2016, 2017 and 2018, from $1.4 million to around $1.2 million over the three years.

Although contractors are hungry and interest rates are low, the city has to couple that with the fact that it has a high debt.

“Those are things you have to let us know how you want us to handle it,” he said.

The Council will continue the discussion at its next meeting Tuesday. Its work session begins at 6:30 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.