Portage council to discuss capital priorities

January 7, 2019

When the Portage Common Council meets Thursday as a committee of the whole, every one of the city’s proposed capital expenditures for the next five years will be on the table.

The challenge for the council: To offer some direction as to which of the projects can be delayed, or perhaps scrapped altogether, in the interest of keeping the city’s debt in line.

Mayor Rick Dodd said he’s not anticipating, anytime soon, more money from the state to help pay for projects such as road repairs and replacements — nor does he anticipate the state, under new Gov. Tony Evers, relaxing the limits placed on how much property tax revenues cities can collect. Evers, a Democrat, is scheduled to be inaugurated today, while the Legislature will remain under Republican control.

“All bets are off after Evers takes office,” Dodd said. “But I’m not holding my breath.”

Dodd noted that Common Council President Mike Charles will preside over the committee of the whole, whose agenda includes one item: “presentation and discussion of five-year capital improvement plan and debt projections.”

One of the challenges for the council will be finding, in one comprehensive list, all the capital projects scheduled for the next five years.

A packet for the committee of the whole meeting, and for the council meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, had not been posted on the city’s website as of Sunday.

Most of the long-term capital projects are listed in the city’s 2019 budget, which the Common Council adopted on Nov. 20. Here’s a link to the PDF budget document: tinyurl.com/y7pc8gys.

But the projects, including the five-year plans, are scattered among the city’s various departments — and all of the projects, in all departments, are subject to scrutiny.

That includes, for example, projects under the umbrella of parks and recreation, including refurbishing or replacing the historic grandstand at the city-owned Columbia County Fairgrounds.

Another wild card is the Portage Canal project from Adams Street east to the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks. The city has a $1.1 million federal grand for canal improvements, which is scheduled to lapse in June. But if the state does not include in its 2019-21 biennial budget any money to clean the canal, the city can’t afford to commit itself to major work alongside the canal, such as adding trails — and the city can’t get the grant renewed unless it commits firmly to completing the projects the grant was intended to fund.

Dodd said it’s possible that, even if the city allows the grant to lapse, there may still be smaller canal-related projects that can be done without the grant.

City Administrator Shawn Murphy has said that the city’s policy regarding debt is to borrow no more money annually than an amount equal to 3.5 percent of the city’s assessed valuation.

For this year’s budget, the proposed borrowing, $17.7 million, amounts to about 2.7 percent of the valuation. And plans call for borrowing in subsequent years to stay within the limits.

However, council member Dennis Nachreiner said, at the Common Council’s Dec. 13 meeting, that the indebtedness is likely to go up, and some hard choices will need to be made — which is why he, as chairman of the Finance and Administration Committee, wants direction from all nine council members.

One complication, according to Dodd, is that not all capital projects are expected to be paid for, in whole or in part, by borrowing.

For example, a proposed performance pavilion at Pauquette Park is expected to be paid for entirely with donations, spearheaded by the Portage Service Clubs Association.

It will be up to Charles whether members of the public may speak at the meeting, Dodd said. It is being called primarily so all members of the council can offer input, initially for the council’s finance and administration committee.

However, Dodd said the council needs to decide soon on which projects will go forward this year, because borrowing has to take place in March to get projects started in a construction season that can begin, depending on weather, as early as April.

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