To add sidewalks or not? Council hears from citizens

Published 9:03 am Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The questions of whether to add more sidewalks in the city and who should be assessed for them took center stage Monday during three public forums at the Albert Lea City Council meeting regarding improvement projects planned for this summer.

A majority of homeowners who spoke out during the hearings said while they support the actual improvement of the streets proposed, they do not support having to pay for added sidewalks, too, when the entire community benefits from them.

Before the hearings began, Albert Lea Mayor Mike Murtaugh said there are alternatives being looked at regarding methods of funding sidewalks within the city. He said he hopes there will be more information about those options at the next meeting.

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This addressed many of the concerns that were to come.

The first hearing, which was for the 2009 Neighborhood Improvement Project in the central part of the city, includes the mill, overlay, curb replacement and sidewalk replacement of several residential streets. The area is bounded on the north by Richway Drive, on the south by Fountain Lake, on the east by Bridge Avenue and on the west by Lakewood Avenue.

The preliminary estimate for the project is about $626,000, with 66 percent assessable to property owners and 34 percent being city cost.

Tom Weigel, of Giles Place, questioned portions of his sidewalk that were going to be replaced. He said he did not think there was anything wrong with them.

Nancy Jenson, of Albert Lea Street, who said she has one of the highest assessments in the project, requested that the city attorney provide her with the present statutes that pertain to sidewalks.

“I also think the timing is wrong with the way it is now,” Jenson said.

The second public hearing addressed the mill, overlay, curb replacement and sidewalk installation on sections of Fountain Street, Martin Road, Bridge Avenue and Madison Avenue, which are state-aid streets. The estimated cost of the project is about $740,000.

Richard Seelye of 914 Jefferson Ave., who noted he was representing several property owners on Madison Avenue, said he feels there is a disproportionate assessment allocation to the people who use and ultimately tear up the roads — referring to the heavy semitrailers that travel down the road and also the city vehicles that go to the City Garage.

Jim Stark, of 1205 Martin Road, said out of the 10 people who are affected by the sidewalk in the project on his street, he doesn’t know anyone who’s really in favor of it.

“What it comes down to is the sidewalks are being built for the community,” Stark said.

He said the city’s asking him to put in a sidewalk he doesn’t want and is telling him to pay for it. It’d be like telling him the city’s going to come in and build a playground in his front yard, and he has to pay for it. Then all the children in the community could come and use it.

“If it’s for the benefit of the whole community, why should we be responsible for it?” Stark asked.

The third hearing, which involved the reconstruction of North Shore Drive from Lakewood Boulevard to Johnson Street, also includes the installation of a sidewalk along Fountain Lake, as well as stabilization of the lake shore.

The estimated total cost is about $501,000 with about 21 percent being assessable to adjacent property owners and about 79 percent being city cost.

Jean Jordan, who lives at 817 North Shore Drive, said unlike with the other two projects, there are many who live along North Shore Drive who are pleased there is a sidewalk going in front of their properties.

Jordan said even though the homeowners “are not cheering for assessments,” they know it is part of their responsibility within the community.

The one concern she had was with also installing a bike path when the street is constructed.

In other action, the council:

Approved three budget policies.

The first is for a special voluntary unpaid leave policy, which will allow employees to voluntarily take unpaid leave as a cost-saving measure for the city.

Prior to the vote, the city already had an unpaid leave policy in place that required employees to take other types of leave before taking their unpaid leave. This policy, however, will allow people to deviate from this requirement and take unpaid leave while still allowing vacation or sick time to continue to accrue.

Employees have to approve the unpaid time off with both their department head and City Manager Victoria Simonsen beforehand.

The second policy is for an alternative work schedule, which includes a flexible work schedule, a flex-time schedule, a compressed work week schedule, job sharing and part-time schedules.

The third policy offers an early retirement incentive to eligible city employees.

Specifically, the city will pay $6,500 to eligible full-time employees who have been with the city for at least five years before May 30.

Employees have until the end of May to sign up for it, and then the employees will negotiate with their supervisor to retire between June 1 and Dec. 31.

 Voted to pay off general obligation permanent improvement revolving fund bonds dated Nov. 1, 2000. The bonds were issued for about $2.3 million, of which about $800,000 is remaining.

The bonds would normally be called in February of 2010, but by paying it off now, the city will save $164,000, Simonsen explained.

 Voted to accept the feasibility report for the Albert Lea Airport runway project.

The project includes the construction of a 5,000-foot bituminous runway and cross runway overlay at the airport.

The project, which has an estimated cost of $5.4 million, would include $3.6 million of federal stimulus funds, nearly $2 million from federal entitlement funds and about $98,000 from city funds.

Jon Lamphier, chairman of the Airport Advisory Board, said though there was some talk about going with a concrete runway as opposed to a bituminous runway, the cost was the ultimate decider about which option to choose.

A 5,000-foot runway will bring more planes into the city, he said. Many planes can only stop at runways that are at least 5,000 feet long.

City Engineer Steven Jahnke said planes would include smaller commercial corporate jets.

“I think this is just an exciting project,” Councilor Ellen Kehr said. “I think we’re very fortunate to have these monies available for our airport and to get it done at such an early date.”

Authorized the submittal of two joint grant applications between the Albert Lea Police Department and the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office.

The first joint application was for an U.S. Department of Justice Recovery Act Grant for an Edward Byrne Memorial Grant totaling about $18,000.

If the grant is obtained, the funds will be divided equally between the two entities. The funds will cover the costs for electronic equipment for in-house training purposes for the city and portable electronic translation tools for the Sheriff’s Office.

The second joint application will be for a Rural Law Enforcement Grant to Combat Crimes an Drugs in the amount of about $260,000 through the U.S. Department of Justice Recovery Act.

If awarded, the grant will go for providing 15 in-car video cameras for local police and deputies. The cameras will be mounted at the rearview mirror.

 Denied a request from local artist Susanne Crane to use the main floor of the Freeborn National Bank Building to paint a mural that will be placed in the downtown district.

Three councilors voted in favor of the request, while three voted against it. Because there was a tie vote, the vote did not pass because of lack of a majority.

Crane, who is the recipient of an original works grant for public art work, plans to paint a mural of Beatrice Bessessen, the woman who the downtown Bessessen Opera House was built for.

She said she had previously used the Freeborn National Bank Building to do 18 murals with children, she’s also organized the art stroll that went through the building and she’s helped open and close the space responsibly for the Artspace project.

Crane said she hopes to begin painting the first week in May, and there would be a week of public viewing of the process the week of May 11. This would be an opportunity to encourage people to come downtown.

She noted it would also be a good space for working on a large scale project.

During discussion of the project, the question was raised about whether the mural had been approved by the city Heritage Preservation Commission to go up in the downtown historic district.