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City planning for future

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 28, 2015 at 3:49 PM

If Santa Claus dropped by and granted every Norwalk city department's full-scale wish list for capital improvements, he would need a big sack.

Since the summer, Mayor Sue Lesch and consultants from PRISM Financial Solutions, based in Powell, have been putting together several key planning documents. One of those is a six-year plan for the city's capital improvement budget.

Lesch stressed that not all proposed projects, or their time tables, come with an endorsement from the administration and, obviously, the city would not be able to afford every one. However, she admitted the figure was stunning at first glance $29 million.

"The list is staggering ... $29 million worth of projects," she said, adding the city typically planned for capital improvement projects one year at a time. "It's an effort to get on paper the things we need to be thinking about."

Lesch added that she did not censor city department heads from presenting their full requests, even though the time frames or scope of some projects would likely be changed if the city did move forward. That way, city officials, as well as the public, can have open discussions about priorities.

PRISM President Bradford Sprague, who has worked with other cities on similar documents, said he was not surprised or overwhelmed by the list.

"I expected it to be much bigger," he said. "There's nothing wrong with a list that goes beyond the resources that are available. You have to have that inventory the next step is to prioritize."

The biggest reason the mayor wanted to begin formulating a plan, and the top priority the city must address, involves Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates. About 54 percent of the $29 million worth of proposals were sewer and water projects, and $7.4 millions of those projects are EPA mandates that must be completed.

The plan also does not account for another chunk of water and sewer projects that stretch beyond the six-year time frame $3.8 million for finding a new source of water other than the reservoir; $1 million for the remainder of the Washington Street sewer and $1.1 million for the Cline Street sewer design and construction.

Lesch said the list is broken into must-dos, should-dos and want-to-dos. The must-dos are the EPA mandates, but the mayor does not want the city hamstrung because of the mandates and said other projects, such as water line replacements, must move forward in the name of responsible government.

"We have said no, no, no, no, no to dozens of things on the list (at budget time)," she said. "The reality is, we can't not do some of these things forever. We have a responsibility to not let things deteriorate."

On average, the city has about $830,000 in its annual capital improvement budget. Sprague said if the city wants to fund some of the larger projects on the list, it will need to find other sources of revenue because the capital improvement fund will never be large enough.

The main example he and other council members pointed to was the fire department's request for a new fire station, listed on the wish list at $3.8 million. Lesch called it a "should-do," but said it was never seriously discussed in the past because the city could not afford it.

Finance Director Diane Eschen said getting the plan down on paper will lead to more discussions. Then, if the city has to go to the public with a bond issue to fund a project, such as the new fire station, sometime in future, the proposal will not come out of left field.

"The conversations might span for several years, but you don't want to surprise people. You want them to be educated about why this is necessary," she said.

A proposed $1.2 million expansion at the recreation center falls under the same category.

City department heads will come before council during the next few weeks and answer specific questions about their proposed projects.

Council President Steve Euton applauded the discussion and said this plan is the type of long-term perspective that can take place now that the mayor is elected to a four-year term, rather than a two-year term.

Council member Tom Stoll said the key will be finding a balance between what people want, as expressed in the comprehensive plan, and what the city must do.

"We have these EPA mandates and we're going to have to satisfy them one way or another. It's better to plan and find what type of funding we can," he said. "Citizens are more interested in parks, making sure the city plows the streets and picks up the garbage. I understand we have big mandates, but we need to try and understand the desires of people."

The list is also likely to change, as soon as this year, whether it be new EPA mandates or pressing need that arises.

"Things are going to change. It will happen as quickly as 2008 budget hearings," Eschen said.

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