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City grapples with need vs cost for new facility

Detroit Lakes Public Works Director Brad Green shows off the tightly packed Street Department garage where several city plow trucks and graders are parked. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham1 / 3
City vehicles take up almost every inch of space in one of several Detroit Lakes Street Department garages on Roosevelt Avenue. Public Works director Brad Green calls it 'the dance' when vehicles need to be moved or worked on. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham2 / 3
Becker County has much more room in their mechanics shop, but the building was constructed near the turn of the century. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham3 / 3

Plans for Becker County and Detroit Lakes to build a joint public works facility have hit a speed bump.

While Becker County is geared up to move ahead with a new home for its highway department, the Detroit Lakes City Council is tapping the brakes over concern about the potential cost.

While estimates are preliminary, and city officials believe there is a lot of room to lower costs. The joint facility has a price tag of about $12.6 million, according to a study done by Oertel Architects of St. Paul.

That’s for a facility that would provide 55,000 square feet to the city street department, 45,000 square feet to the county highway department, and another 4,000 square feet to the county bus system, Becker County Transit.

It would likely be built on 17 acres of city-owned land near the Detroit Lakes Utility Department headquarters off North Tower Road.

The city and county would save nearly 20 percent by joining together in a single facility, said Becker County Highway Engineer Jim Olson.

There’s a 10 percent savings in the building’s common areas, but it’s closer to 20 percent for the whole project, when land, utility connections and other costs are added in, he said.

He said the plan calls for about $5 million from both the city and the county, spitting the cost of the building about 50-50.

“We can do some adjustment to meet the budget,” Olson said. “The architect said he can build it to space needs or to budget.”

But to pay for its half of the new facility, the city would have to float a 20-year bond at an estimated 4.5 percent. The city property tax levy would have to increase by 10 percent to make the payments on a $5 million bond, according to City Administrator Bob Louiseau.

The need for new facilities is hard to dispute: the city street department headquarters consists of four buildings on a cramped 1.5 acre site on East Front Street.

The equipment has gotten too big for the buildings, and plow trucks have to leave their plow units outside when they are parked in tight rows inside for the night.

The repair shop and wood shops have to double as parking areas, and can require a lot of juggling of vehicles to get repair work done.

The 19 city street department employees do an excellent job with the tools they have, said Detroit Lakes Public Works Director Brad Green, but a new facility would give them the chance to be more effective in a number of areas.

A full wash bay, with undercarriage cleaning, would add life to the city’s fleet of 47 vehicles, large and small, he said. City workers now do the best they can with a garden hose.

While the county has more room at its five-building complex on a half-dozen acres a few blocks to the west, its highway department has also suffered growing pains as ever-larger trucks and plows try to fit into aging buildings.

It has a fleet of 60 vehicles, large and small, and its repair shop also has to double as a parking area in the winter.

Its outdated fueling station is too small, with one pump for unleaded gasoline and one for diesel fuel. Drivers sometimes have to wait in line to fill up.

Used parts are also becoming very difficult to find for the aging fuel pump system, said County Maintenance Superintendent Jona Jacobson.

“Both us and the city realize our buildings are way past their life,” said Olson, the county highway engineer.

The county is ready to press ahead with the project, while the city wasn’t expecting to move so quickly.

“We have determined that the county is comfortable with what the architect has presented us,” Olson said of the plan.

The county wants to break ground this fall on the building and have it completed in the fall of 2015 — with or without the city.

Becker County Commissioner John Okeson asked the City Council Monday to let the county know by May 13 whether it plans to participate in a joint facility.

“We’re comfortable with the city but we could go either way,” Olson said.

If the county goes it alone, it will likely build on a county-owned site off Highway 59 near Seaberg Power Sports.

City Council members discussed the matter at length on Monday during a special city council meeting, with Dan Wenner and Marty Waller speaking largely in support of the plan.

Ron Zeman spoke of the need for a new facility, but had a hard time with the cost, as did G.L. Tucker, Bruce Imholte and Mayor Matt Brenk, all of whom worried about its impact on the tax levy.

Dave Aune and Madelyn Sukke mostly listened. Al Brevik and Jamie Marks Erickson were not at the meeting.

“We’ve obviously outgrown the facility,” Waller said. “I commend Brad (Green) and his guys for making it work as best they can.”

“The county and city facilities are both worn out,” added Zeman.

No vote was held. The council directed Louiseau to take a look at different financing options, investigate the feasibility of trimming the city’s space in the new facility and look at the option of constructing it in phases.

The council will decide the matter at a special meeting next week.

Commissioner Barry Nelson said that while there are always some negatives to sharing facilities with other entities, he sees it as a positive for the county and city to share the facility.

“Our relationship won’t be suffering either way,” he said, whether the city goes in on the facility or not.