City staff reductions squeeze economic development programs
LA CROSSE, Wis. - Downtown business owner Chris Kahlow had planned to bypass her bank this spring to seek a loan from the city of La Crosse. But the financing she'd counted on to renovate two apartments in her pair of Pearl Street buildings now m...
LA CROSSE, Wis. - Downtown business owner Chris Kahlow had planned to bypass her bank this spring to seek a loan from the city of La Crosse.
But the financing she'd counted on to renovate two apartments in her pair of Pearl Street buildings now might not be available.
Planning Director Larry Kirch said his department is so weakened by a city hiring freeze he's suspending work on 32 programs, plans and reports -- including small business and upper floor renovation loans and administration of tax increment financing.
These simply won't get done without staff, Kirch warned.
He turned down a downtown businessman last week who was saving up to meet the 20 percent match for the city's 80/20 Architectural and Engineering Analysis Grant Program.
"I won't be doing that project without the loan from the city," Kahlow said. "The banks have really put businesses in a credit squeeze. I really doubt my banker will want to take that kind of risk."
Renovating a historic structure to bring it up to current standards is more difficult and expensive than building new, she said. The Upper Floor Renovation Loan Program helped level the playing field for rehabilitating existing sites.
Mayor Matt Harter instituted a loose hiring freeze in May 2009. By September, City Hall had 24 vacancies.
The Parks and Recreation Department anticipates four more open positions and considered scaling back its Neighbors' Day role.
The police department's two-man Alcohol Compliance and Education Unit was disbanded, at least for now, to put those officers back on patrol. Department officials now are considering an online crime reporting system to reduce officers' workloads.
In a memo to Harter last week, Kirch said staff shortages have reached a head with four vacant positions and he was seeking relief.
"As of Feb. 2, our planning staff will consist of two planners and no administrative support," Kirch said.
The staff reductions mean all departments have had to prioritize, Harter said Wednesday.
Tim Kabat said he'd noticed an uptick in small business inquiries before he recently left the city's Planning Department to head Downtown Mainstreet.
"Usually by the time small business owners come to the city, they have just about exhausted every other alternative," Kabat said.
Kahlow wouldn't have been able to purchase her Pearl Street bookstore and coffee shop in the 1990s without a small business loan from the city.
"We went to the banks, we got turned down," she said.
Main Street Law Office's Phil Addis received a $150,000 small business loan and a $250,000 upper floor renovation loan to create retail spaces and second-floor apartments in the Rowley building at Third and Main streets.
The People's Food Co-op received $300,000, and Authenticom, housed in the Doerflinger building, got $120,000 in small business funds.
"The city helped bridge the gap between our own equity in the building and what the banks were willing to loan us, and I don't believe we would have been able to do the project without them," Addis said.
Copyright (c) 2010, La Crosse Tribune, Wis./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.