4/13/2018 7:27:00 AM St. Germain community building: One step forward, two steps back
Plans go back to drawing board
Brian Jopek/Lakeland Times
The St. Germain town board met Monday to discuss whether or not to demolish the town’s red brick schoolhouse (pictured) and current community center and replace them with a multi-million dollar facility.
After more than three hours of debate and discussion, St. Germain is farther away from progress towards its community building than it was when Monday's town board meeting began.
The meeting's main point of contention was whether or not to demolish the town's red brick schoolhouse and current community center and replace them with a multi-million dollar facility of a yet-to-be determined configuration. Town officials and taxpayers have been debating the issue for roughly 20 years.
Going into Monday's meeting, the most recent plan was to settle on a single proposal for the town board to present as a question to the annual meeting of electors.
That question was never drafted because many more were raised.
The question would have asked electors for permission to raze both existing buildings and to build a new one - to cost approximately $4.5 million.
Plans for the proposed building had been ordered by the board and drafted by Funktion Design Studio, an architectural firm based in Wausau.
As ordered, those plans were for a multi-purpose building which would feature rooms for meetings and storage as well as a gymnasium sized for half-court basketball.
One of the most recent conceptual plans looked at had the building at just over 17,000 square feet and including a full basketball court.
According to information provided by Funktion Design's Melody Hamlin in late March, the cost estimate for a 15,100 square foot building with a half-court for basketball and the 17,000 square foot facility differed by about $300,000.
During Monday's meeting, town supervisor Ted Ritter made note of that.
Noting the estimate quoted for a facility with a full-court for basketball wasn't much more, he suggested scrapping the current plan from Funktion Design and having the firm draft two new ones in its place.
One plan would center around a building that was, for all intents and purposes, a full-court gymnasium with a few peripheral rooms.
The other plan would be for an exposition center with standard ceilings. The design would feature one large central hall that could be left open for events like weddings and gun shows or partitioned into smaller rooms for use by multiple groups at once.
Both designs would have footprints of the same square footage.
The board agreed to scrap the old plan from Funktion and have the two new ones drafted.
Three schools of thought
Most of Monday's town board meeting was open to public comment and participation.
Based on input from attendees, the town seems to be split into three camps.
One group of taxpayers has a "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" position.
Town clerk Tom Martens, historically in favor of preserving the 1941 red brick schoolhouse, spoke to the board from that perspective.
He pointed out inspectors who have surveyed the red brick schoolhouse and the current community building "found nothing wrong."
"Funktion went through it and found nothing wrong," he said. "Your objections are based on perceived problems that you don't even know are there. You haven't looked at remodeling the school. You haven't looked at remodeling this (community building) as far as cost goes."
Martens sees the present situation as fully functional. "You've got the gym," he said. "You've got the meeting rooms. You've got the storage, and you've got a large room over there So far, nobody's found anything wrong with these buildings for a whole lot less money than what this new one is supposed to cost - and you'd have everything."
Another group seems to favor the demolition of the old buildings and the construction of a new one, but at a minimum of cost, which would preclude paying for a gymnasium.
"I would have a real problem spending a half a million dollars on a gym to add to this building," said one member of the audience.
He said as far as functionality and opportunity for use go, he thought the current elementary school not far away was doing the town justice.
"We're paying taxes on that school and we built that school through our taxes," he said. "I really don't think we need another gym less than a quarter of a mile away. We need a community center in this town that's going to be used for a community center. So I would be definitely against putting a gym in."
Members of the third group, comprised mostly of parents with school-aged children, are used to having a community gymnasium and want one to be included in any plans moving forward.
One mother said she felt the gymnasium in the community center is "an attribute to this town."
"People come here from Eagle River or from other small areas because they don't have this," she said. "If you go to the Town of Lincoln, you can't go in there and play basketball. That's not great for the Town of Lincoln. What we have here is great for the Town of St. Germain. And there's a lot of us that don't come to any meetings or Prime Time dinners or women's service things and we pay taxes for it. So why would we want to vote for a center we're not going to use? We're not going to use it without a gym."
The board found itself still facing more potentialities for action than it could word into a single yes-or-no question for electors. In essence, there are three questions that the voters must decide:
Should the red brick schoolhouse and current community building be kept or destroyed?
If the current buildings are destroyed, should a community center without a gymnasium be built?
If the current buildings are destroyed, should a center with a gymnasium be built?
Late last year, the town board determined there would be one choice on a ballot when the matter goes before the electors.
In recent months, people have asked at different times in meetings questions about whether or not they'd be able to vote for other options.
That line of questioning continued Monday.
"All you've talked about tonight is this new building and how it's going to be changed and all that," a member of the audience said to town chairman Tom Christensen. "Are you assuming, then, that the red brick and this building are going to be gone?"
Christensen's answer was, as it's been when asked the question in previous meetings, was simply "yes."
Ritter touched on that point earlier in the meeting.
"We've already agreed the red brick is gone and this building is gone," he said. "So, the two options we present are a brand-new building. But one of the options is with a full gym, one option is using that same space for meeting areas, not gymnasium. See what the cost difference is, let the voters decide what they want."
After fielding other questions and comments from those audience members who were hesitant to spend millions of dollars and see a tax increase, Christensen spoke on the subject.
"The tax levy will go up until the building is paid off," he said. "There was a flier that was mailed to some people in town: 'Vote no, no, no, 'cause it's going to raise your taxes.' We're not that far along to know how much it's going to raise your taxes. If your taxes go up - for some folks - 50 bucks, hey! A brand-new building for 50 bucks a year? No big deal. Four-hundred bucks? Yeah, OK; maybe now I'm going to start thinking about it."
Everybody, Christensen said, has their different level.
"And to say 'Vote no because your taxes are going to go up,' and you don't know how much it's going up by, that's really premature," he said. "And that's what gets us 20 years of nothing."
Even after several months, the fact the town board established it would be presenting one option to electors still wasn't registering.
The question was asked again.
"Has there been a consideration to take it to the townspeople, like what we would like for our options instead of just presenting me, a taxpayer, with 'This is your option: a $4.5 million new community center. We're tearing everything down'?" one member of the audience asked. "Have you considered putting a little bit more out there for voter options?"
"Unfortunately, that doesn't work," Christensen answered. "And here's why it doesn't work. Let's say that we had four options or possibilities to do. You could end up with one option winning with two votes - less than a majority of the people."
"I don't think this board can sit up here and decided if we're going to have a full gym or not," Ritter said.
"We can sit up here and decide which proposal we're going to put forward," Christensen answered.
With that, the audience members asked several questions about whether or not electors can present their own options instead of those favored by the board.
After the subject was debated for some time, Christensen read statutes pertaining to the powers of the town electors.
It was determined that in a "special" electors meeting scheduled by the board, the agenda may be set only by members of the town board.
At an annual meeting of electors, however, taxpayers can make motions for action from the floor, even if the board is not in favor of said action.
"But it's not a free-for-all," Christensen warned.
A principal problem in the decision-making process is there is no data to consult about the use of the town facilities.
No one knows how often the gymnasium is used or by how many people. No one knows how many groups have had conflicts over the use of community center rooms. No one knows how often requests for use have been denied.
"We don't know the volume or the quantity," Christensen said. "We can't even guess at it ... Trying to talk about it doesn't do much good."
As Martens pointed out, without any data to consult, issues with the current setup are "perceived problems" and cannot be quantified.
Christensen said groups using the current community center for audio/visual presentations have met with complications.
"The internet connection and the internet service in here is very poor," he said, though he had no statistical data to show how often it is problematic.
By the end of the meeting, board members moved to work on language for a proposal - to be presented to the electors - that can include the options of no tear-downs, tear-down with no gym and new community center, and tear-down with new gym.
The board did acknowledge electors may opt to take their own action at this year's annual meeting.
"This isn't done yet, by any stretch of the imagination," Christensen said. "Every meeting, I think that we're going to move forward and get going, and it just kind of backs up a little bit."
"And I just did it again," Ritter added.
"Yeah," Christensen said.
One audience member expressed frustration at the lack of progress.
"It is to the point that it's annoying now to even hear this," he said. "I mean, over the last year, just the constant talking ..."
Fred Williston may be reached via email at email@example.com.