On Tuesday, June 18, the Portage County Board of Supervisors addressed a number of issues. One of them has to do with the government facility project(s) that the county has been looking at over the past 16 months.
Actually, the county has been working on questions surrounding its infrastructure for 20 years.
Over the past year, staff and supervisors have attempted to build upon all of the conversations the county has had around the question of how to address our infrastructure needs that have grown over that time frame.
Needless to say, opinions on how best to accomplish that have fluctuated quite a bit over the years. That puts the county in the complicated position of trying to find a path forward that can address both the county’s infrastructural needs and the increasing costs associated with those needs as that infrastructure continues to deteriorate or remain out-of-compliance.
This really is an unfortunate position to be in because—as a county—we have let numerous buildings and other pieces of infrastructure to get to this point. The county has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 20 years in order to rediscover what we’ve known all along.
Something needs to be done. Infrastructure doesn’t care who is holding which elected office or what anyone in particular thinks. It has an expected life span and eventually gives out.
All of that being said, the deliberative process shouldn’t be driven by a sense of urgency. It’s important to get this as right as possible.
The balance that has to be struck for elected officials is between the delegate model of representation and the trustee model. The delegate model is one where an elected leader is an extension of and voice for the public opinions they hear. The trustee model is one where a leader makes decisions by exercising their own judgment based upon public opinion and the information they have at their disposal.
To be clear, it’s not whether leaders should be one or the other. Rather, it’s how best to balance both approaches. That means working with constituents as well the nuanced knowledge and understanding leaders in the community get from the access they have as elected officials.
This can inspire the kind of informed dialogue you’d hope for so that decisions can be made and a broad understanding of an issue can be achieved. Granted, this is not easy when there are heated topics with multiple perspectives that don’t easily align on any particular path forward. It’s also not easy if people aren’t talking to each other.
Nevertheless, we should try to make decisions that live within that balance.
That’s why it’s most important to discuss what is right rather than to debate who is right. Strip away the various layers of politics to an issue, and you can get at its core. That’s the best starting point to work from, and it’s the best way to address as many questions and concerns as possible.
As far as our infrastructure questions go, there are a lot of potential answers that the county is exploring.
The county has looked at the downtown location and found that the costs of building everything there are prohibitive. Not only that, but the island of properties that the county owns is surrounded by upcoming developments which mean the only realistic way to expand in that space is to build vertically, which is costly.
Parking is, for many, a perennial concern and some upcoming projects will be taking parking spaces away from the area. There are private lots in the neighborhood, but the public doesn’t always have access to them.
Thankfully, the city has been actively putting together a plan for the downtown district and the newly established TIF No. 10, and that plan has a long-term vision that can work with or without the county’s presence.
That brings us to the proposal from the city to the county for a potential property swap.
That proposal was not anticipated by the county, but once it was on the table the county felt like it should do its due diligence and see what possibilities it presented.
A key part of the proposal is a 25-acre greenfield site located in the East Park Commerce Center near Crossroad Commons. This site could be where the county explores relocating some or all of its services over time. That was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.
There are pros and cons to anything, but one of the positives presented by this proposal is that it would save taxpayers in the city and the county by providing the city with a new location for a city hall they don’t have to build (i.e. the Annex building) and the county with a site that presents at least a 10-15 percent savings on any potential project.
Given that project costs and local tax rates are of clear importance, this alone made it worth exploring the city’s proposal.
Something that’s not often brought up when this offer is discussed is that the city would not be leaving the downtown area. So there will be a municipal presence there regardless of what actions the county takes.
Furthermore, the proposed greenfield location is closer to the center of the county whether you calculate that center by population or geography. This is important to consider given that there are a lot of people who use county services who don’t live in the city.
The city has all of its own parallel services, and access to them will—as I understand it—remain in the downtown area.
Overall, and based on the limited public input we’ve received over the last 16 months, county residents acknowledge that there are clear infrastructure needs after years of inaction. Opinion is still somewhat split on whether county services should be downtown or not and what options we should pursue, but this gets us back to the reality that’s staring us in the face.
I would argue that what’s right starts with making a decision that provides a clear starting point for a long-term plan for county services and county infrastructure.
If that plan can be put together, future county boards and county executives won’t be put in the position of hiring yet another consultant or architecture firm to assess the county’s needs and identify the multitude of problems that we’ve known about for some time now.
I wrote about all of this earlier in the year, and I personally made sure that several meetings were held around the county on this topic so that the public could come and voice any concerns and get answers to their questions.
Attendance was pretty poor, but we were also in the early stages of this discussion. It’s my intention to hold more rounds of meetings as we move further along in our process—wherever that process takes us—because it’s important that we continue to hear from you.
Hopefully, our path forward will culminate in decisions that set the county up for long-term success.
Portage County Executive Chris Holman can be reached at (715) 346-1997.
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