By Michael Howell
The City of Hamilton is considering purchasing the land that includes Claudia Driscoll Park and the old National Guard Armory building and associated parking lot on the west side of town. An application for a $2 million InterCap Loan has already been made, but acceptance of the application does not obligate the City to take the loan.
According to Special Projects Coordinator Dennis Stranger, however, even if the City qualifies for the loan, it cannot afford the debt service. He said the City was not eligible for a 15-year loan which would lower the interest payments. To incur the long-term debt would require public approval at the ballot box. Even lower payments could be made on a 20-year loan. Under the 15-year plan the total payments would reach $1.5 million, while under a 20-year plan the total payments would approach $1.9 million. He said the bond required to pay off the loan would raise something like 10 mills and cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $27 per year.
According to Stranger, once the property was purchased, the City could use the $700,000 it had accumulated in a fund for the development of a new Justice Center to remodel the Armory building. He said it could be made to accommodate the Police Department and the attorney offices. The courts would have to stay where they are until further funding could be acquired, although court security issues was one of the primary concerns driving development of a new Justice Center. He said that this was an opportunity to keep Claudia Driscoll Park and to get a new Justice Center as well.
Councilor Joe Petrusaitis said that the City had the money to buy the property right now and then decide in the future about a building project.
“We need to save the property, but we are in over our heads,” said Petrusaitis.
Councilor Travis Martinez said that he did not like the idea of the City buying property just to sit on it. He said that purchases should be tied to services.
“There is no cheap solution to the problems,” said Stranger, “but to get the land is a start.” He said that he recommended buying the park land and the Armory and parking lot, but it meant putting it on the ballot, in which case, “Time is of the essence,” he said. “If the City wants to get public approval it would have to move soon.” He said there were deadlines set by the Department of Military Affairs affecting the deal on the Armory building as well as time required to get the issue on the ballot and through the protest period.
The Council, which was meeting as a Committee of the Whole, agreed to place the issue on the next Council meeting set for Tuesday, December 6.
Cell tower proposed for cemetery
Another issue headed for Council is whether or not to lease some land to Verizon Wireless for the placement of a cell tower on cemetery property. The company tried in the recent past to place a cell tower on the football field near River Park and ran into stiff opposition from neighboring landowners. That proposal was dropped.
Some concerns were received over the proposed site at the cemetery and an alternative site was identified. Company officials responded, stating that the proposed alternative site would not work for them.
The Parks Committee concluded that either option would be viable at the cemetery since the company was agreeable to doing landscaping and to removing the footings should the lease expire. The company has agreed to pay $1,200 per month and limit increases to one to two percent annually.
The Committee of the Whole agreed to send the matter to Council for consent for the company to apply to the Zoning Board. If the Zoning Board approves the project, the Council would sign the lease.
Councilor Jenny West said, “I’m for it. We may lose the chance and it is a good offer. We could use the money.”
Speed limits and crosswalks
State accident statistics confirm that a lot of accidents happen along Fairgrounds Road. In the last five years, 54 accidents have occurred in the area. Council members are concerned and would like to see some crosswalks installed at Marcus Street and Daly Avenue as well as a lower speed limit in the area by the school.
City Attorney Karen Mahar explained that since Fairgrounds Road was a state road, there was a strict process for changing the speed limit. The first step is to determine who really has jurisdiction. If it is the state then a speed study would have to be done and the speed limit could then be set at the 80th percentile of the study results, but no lower. This means that after the study the speed limit could even go up.
Due to the high accident history in the area, Montana Department of Transportation officials have said they would be willing to pay for a speed study if the City requested one.
Rural/City Fire Department funding
Mayor Jerry Steele recommended that the Council consider adjusting the contract between rural and city fire departments to make the funding more equitable. According to Special Projects Director Dennis Stranger, the receipts from the Rural District between 2003 and 2016 averaged about $2 million of the total $4.3 million in costs, which means the City is footing 53% of the bill while the Rural is only paying 47% of the costs. He said this would change due to certain budgeted expenditures to a 66% to 34% split in the coming year.
“Why would the City provide services to the Rural District at a loss?” asked Steele.
It was pointed out that expenditures included equipment purchases as well as operational costs and did not always balance out as the districts need different types of equipment at different times.
Councilor Ken Bell pointed out that the operational costs were not equitable.
City Attorney Karen Mahar said that the Council had a subcommittee working with the fire districts over the issue and they would be meeting in January to discuss the issue. She said that the subcommittee’s recommendation would be that operational costs should be split 50/50 by Rural and City.
“It would be helpful if we knew that everyone was agreed that operational costs should be equitable,” said Mahar. One complication is that the City is required by law to pay retirement benefits while the County is not.
State will decide about sidewalk art
Word from the Streets and Alleys Department is that the request from Barbara Liss to place a sculpture on the sidewalk on Main Street will have to be approved or denied by the state, since Main Street is a state-owned road.
After discussions with the state it appears that an encroachment permit from MDT would be required and probably would not be issued for the installation as proposed.