Portage Common Council to confer Jan. 10 on capital priorities

December 19, 2018

Long-term capital improvement proposals could affect the city of Portage’s borrowing capacity “big time,” council member Dennis Nachreiner said Thursday — prompting the council to make the rare move of scheduling a committee of the whole meeting for Jan. 10.

Nachreiner, chairman of the council’s Finance and Administration Committee, said he wanted the input of all nine council members and Mayor Rick Dodd before the committee makes any recommendations or decisions on which projects to complete on schedule, which to delay and which to scrap altogether.

Dodd agreed, saying, “This is going to impact all of us.”

Committee of the whole meetings are typically called to discuss a specific issue, without making a firm decision. The council’s president — currently Mike Charles — typically presides over a committee of the whole.

The meeting is being held on the same night as the council’s regular meeting, which will start at 7 p.m. And, it’s scheduled in advance of the Jan. 14 monthly Finance and Administration Committee meeting, where the five-year capital improvements plan is expected to be discussed in some depth, according to Nachreiner.

It looks challenging, if not impossible, to do every project currently scheduled in the city’s five-year capital improvements plan without borrowing more money than the city can afford, he said.

A full list of those projects, when they’re scheduled and their projected costs will be posted on the city’s website on or about Jan. 4, the Friday before the committee of the whole session, said Administrator Shawn Murphy.

Nachreiner said some hard choices will likely have to be made.

Two examples come immediately to his mind:

Refurbishing or replacing the historic grandstand at the Columbia County Fairgrounds — a project whose cost could easily exceed $1 million.Adding trails, bridges and other amenities alongside a section of the Portage Canal, if the state pays for dredging and cleanup as part of its 2019-21 biennial budget. If the state does not fund the cleanup, then city officials are likely to let lapse a $1.1 million federal grant, which would pay most of the cost of the canal-side amenities. City officials have until the end of June to extend the grant, but they can get an extension only if they commit to doing the project.

According to Murphy, it’s city policy to hold the total annual debt to no more than 3.5 percent of the city’s assessed valuation.

In the recently adopted 2019 budget, the total general obligation debt of $17.7 million comes to about 2.7 percent of the valuation. Also, projections for the years 2020 through 2022 show the debt within that limit — but it’s unlikely to stay that way.

That’s partly because the city is likely going to have to take on some unusual projects, related to a major state road project on Highway 16-51 near downtown Portage, scheduled for 2021.

The city has already taken one key step to hold the line on debt. Instead of doing both alley and sidewalk improvements every year, from now on sidewalk improvements will be done in odd-numbered years and alley improvements in even-numbered years.

To further hold the line on debt, the city might have to delay or downsize some of the projects that had been scheduled for a few years from now.

“Those dates are approaching pretty fast, and we have to move some of them around,” Nachreiner said.

Council member Bill Kutzke suggested giving all council members an opportunity to study the long-term capital plans, and perhaps talk to their constituents about which projects should have priority.

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