After months of planning, public hearings, and debate, the La Crosse City Council gave final approval to the $49 million renovations and expansion of the La Crosse Center at Thursday's council meeting.
Plans call for extending the 40-year-old center outward toward Main Street on one side, and the Mississippi River on the other.
Before the final vote on Thursday four members of the City Council tried to put a final vote on hold, asking for a 30-day delay, that vote failed. Those four then voted against approval of the project which passed by a seven to four vote. Two council members were absent from the meeting.
Critics say the new center would intrude too far into Riverside Park and is too expensive. The project will require a $7 million contribution from local taxpayers.
"As we sit here today, we do not have those moneys," Mayor of La Crosse Tim Kabat elaborates, "so you have to go with the decision based on the information you have, and right now it's going to fall on the tax-payers or we're going to do less other projects like streets and fire stations and seniors centers, I mean, that's what it really boils down to," Mayor Kabat finishes.
When asked about the Mayor's ability to veto council decision, Mayor Kabat acknowledged the notion and said he will think about the information presented at Thursday's meeting before the veto deadline on Tuesday.
The project would add about $200 a year for six years to the average property tax bill. La Crosse Center officials say the expansion is worth the tax increase due to the opportunities an updated center could bring to the city.
"Quality of life and the variety of things that we can bring to the center that the community can enjoy, Director of the La Crosse Center Art Fahey says.
"By bringing new people in town, and things that they can come down and enjoy, those are things that a lot of communities of our size don't have. So among other things, I think those are some things to point to," Fahey concludes.
Thursday's decision gives architects approval to begin creating a final design. That completed design must go before the council once more for final approval before work can begin.
Plans for the $49 million expansion of the La Crosse Center heads to the full council Thursday night, but doubts about the plan's cost and encroachment into Riverside Park threaten to postpone its development.
Mayor Tim Kabat says he not comfortable with the encroachment into the park and extra $7 million price tag.
On June 7, the Finance and Personnel Committee approved a plan for the city to bond (or borrow) $42 million instead of the originally planned $35 million. Both of those plans would either impact taxpayers or cut funding from an already strained capital improvement budget.
The encroachment in question would take up approximately one half acre of the 10 acre park. The section is currently the most under-utilized, according to some officials.
The mayor says impact of the now more expensive plan is too difficult to mitigate.
"We don't really have any other opportunity to make up for that, other than either raising taxes or reducing what we spend on streets and fire stations," Mayor Kabat said. "I just don't see that as being acceptable."
Over 20 years, the estimated debt impact of bonding $35 million would be approximately $950 dollars for a $120,000 property owner. Bonding $42 million would increase that to just under $1200 dollars. The first year in both cases would raises property taxes by $3.
An alternative to raising taxes is to cut from the capital improvement program budget, currently at $7.5 million each year. Mitigating tax increases for both the $35 and $42 million bonding options would cut $2 million or more each year.
Supporters like District 8 Council Member Jessica Olson said the intangible benefits far outweigh the extra cost, referencing potential impact on in-flow of money and job creation in the long-term. The resolution failing - or the mayor choosing to veto - would send designs back to the drawing board, likely for months or more.
"There's other concerns, such as the interest rates ticking upwards," Olson said. "So everyday that we wait and not move forward, it's going to be more expensive for the taxpayers for the same project, whatever [design] we end up with."
Both sides agree the expansion is necessary and that the decision is once in a generation, but have a disconnect on why.