After espousing the need for more affordable housing in Eau Claire for the past year, a couple of City Council members were dismayed to see money wouldn’t be allocated to address the issue until 2022 in a proposed city projects plan.
Council members Catherine Emmanuelle and Andrew Werthmann both said they’d face a tough time telling people that a key topic in April’s elections won’t see financial support from the city next year.
“For me to go out to constituents and say in three years we’ll be able to address it, that’s difficult,” Emmanuelle said during a Tuesday evening work session.
City Manager Dale Peters explained that the 2020-2024 Capital Improvements Plan he is proposing had to strike a balance between new initiatives and projects that have been in the city’s queue for years.
Finance director Jay Winzenz said he took into consideration priorities that council members expressed during a May 28 meeting and made tweaks to the plan. Those changes were made mostly by delaying other projects, namely $2.15 million in improvements to Hobbs Ice Center.
The $1 million the city planned for investments in renewable energy were boosted by $900,000 based on the council’s input, Winzenz noted.
An initiative to get the public more involved in how the city spends money will get control of $500,000 in projects spending over the next five years.
But it wasn’t the addition of $1.25 million to help address Eau Claire’s affordable housing crunch that bothered Werthmann, it was that it wouldn’t start coming until 2022.
“It’s hard for me to go out and say we’re going to do this in three year’s time,” Werthmann said.
He said the plan didn’t take enough of the council’s input from the May 28 priority-setting exercise.
“It doesn’t seem to me that it did,” Werthmann said.
Peters replied that elected officials’ answers to an exercise on how they’d want to see city projects funded were listened to, but not in a strictly dollar-for-dollar way.
“If we followed that literally, there would be a 40% reduction in street projects,” he said.
Peters added that it’s the council’s prerogative to make amendments to the projects plan in coming weeks.
Both Werthmann and Emmanuelle noted how 2019’s budget amendments had been a contentious issue during the last election.
“That puts the council in a very difficult spot,” Emmanuelle said.
She hopes any potential changes can be made earlier in the year, rather than when the full 2020 budget is approved this fall.
The first year of the 2020-2024 projects plan will become part of next year’s city budget in autumn. Before that happens, the council will have a series of meetings to discuss funding for specific projects and make changes to the plan. Tuesday was the first meeting and there will be another next week on Tuesday afternoon. Numerous city commissions will then give their opinions on the plan before it goes to a public discussion on July 22 followed by a July 23 City Council vote.
As Peters proposed, the five-year projects plan has a total cost of $209 million with $61.2 million of that in next year alone.
The biggest single project planned for 2020 is $17 million — half from private donors the rest borrowed by the city — to add a third floor and make major renovations to L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, 400 Eau Claire St.