Small changes to the city’s nearly $51.7 million six-year capital improvement program budget could have a big impact on public safety.
The program pays for vehicles and equipment for city departments, and projects like street maintenance, sidewalks and parks and recreation improvements throughout the city.
Council President Brent Fennessey and Council Vice President Craig Sutherland introduced the changes to address concerns they had after the initial proposal to eliminate nearly $9.5 million in spending was introduced two weeks ago.
After a first-time reduction in the oil pipeline terminal tax the city receives, a deficit was created by recalculating some of the projected revenue the city relies on for the program.
Fennessey and Sutherland’s proposal would have added $1 million in revenue from excess funds from the 2019 general fund budget and used that money to pay for a new fire rig before the existing rig goes out of compliance at the end of the year.
Tuesday night, Fennessey said he was no longer comfortable with that figure after working with Finance Director Ashley Puetz to dig deeper into the numbers.
“I think we’re going to have to fund that a different way,” Fennessey said. He suggested the Finance Committee explore ways the city could use reserve funds to pay for a new fire rig.
However, most councilors were amenable to other changes proposed to replace police radios and partially fund the Take-Home Squad Program.
To pay for police radios, Council leadership proposed deferring plans to construct a paved path on North 28th Street — a project Sutherland proposed — and eliminating funding for one year in the Neighborhood Improvement Program, which covers the cost of razing blighted properties.
Fennessey said last year the city set aside $100,000 for the radios with the intent the $300,000 purchase would be made this year.
The Council also approved using about $62,500 from the budget’s contingency fund to pay for the Take-Home Squad Program. Previously funded at $120,000 in 2020, it was cut entirely to close the gap on the projected deficit.
The program, which assigns officers who live in Superior a squad car they can take home, was created to improve neighborhood safety and reduce wear and tear on fleet squads, reducing how often they have to be replaced.
“The problem with just eliminating the Take-Home Squad Program here is then it’s gone,” Fennessey said. “We’ve worked hard over the last couple of years for this program, so we reap the benefits in the future.”
He estimated the city is two to three vehicles away from a fully-funded program.
Most city councilors approved amending the budget for police radios and the Take-Home Squad Program.
Councilors Dan Olson, Jenny Van Sickle, Warren Bender, Tylor Elm, Keith Kern and Esther Dalbec joined Fennessey and Sutherland in approving those changes to the budget.
“I’m against this,” said Councilor Jack Sweeney, who joined Councilor Ruth Ludwig in voting against the changes. “We’ve vetted this in a number of meetings … at the 11th hour, we start changing it.”
Sutherland said the Council has only had the proposed budget, which excluded funding for police radios, for a couple of weeks. He said police officer safety is more important than the funding proposals eliminated.
“The radios are at end of life,” Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said. “The connectivity with our WisComm is poor at best. I know our officers are having dropped transmissions and one of those calls could be looking for help.”
That’s the reason Alexander said he started addressing the issue with the Finance Department a couple of years ago.
“What Chief Alexander said gave me goosebumps,” Sutherland said. “Our radios are ‘poor at best.’ That right there describes the importance of these radios to make sure our law enforcement men and women go home every night.”
Over the next six years, the capital improvement program will invest $1.5 million annually in general street maintenance, $300,000 annually for park improvements and almost $500,000 annually for sidewalks. The plan also calls for a variety of specific street, trail and park projects and the replacement of some vehicles and equipment.
Paine said spending for sidewalks will be reduced to $400,000 in 2023 because funding for the paved path on North 28th Street would have come from the sidewalk program.
- Councilors adopted the Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which sets priorities for parks and recreation improvements.
- Councilors approved setting aside $57,000 from the parks improvement allocation in 2020 to use as matching funds if the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve receives a grant to improve the Pokegama Bay Landing in the Superior Municipal Forest.
The grant would provide about $112,000 to construct launch improvements at the Pokegama Bay Landing, said Deanna Erickson, education coordinator for the NERR
Planned improvements include parking, a vault toilet, trash and recycling, road improvements, a rolling dock with light, a trailer and paddle craft launches and a landing pad for canoes and kayaks. The upgrades would only be constructed this year if the NERR gets the grant.