Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

City facilities in Tower

A time-out is in order as the city plans for the future of its public buildings

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City officials in Tower are wise to hit the pause button on a plan to reshape city facilities for the future— and seek input from residents before committing to a multi-million dollar project that would involve significant public bonding.

The city was slated to hold a public input session at the Tower Civic Center shortly after the Timberjay went to press this week. While the outcome of the session is unknown as this is written, we consider it a good first step as the city ponders its facilities future.

With the prospects for the joint emergency services facility now up in the air, and with Breitung Township pulling back from the project for sensible reasons, it is certainly time for the city of Tower to consider whether it makes sense to commit to paying for a multi-million dollar government center of its own.

We’re all familiar with the usual arguments for new facilities, which mostly focus on improved efficiency and lower operating costs. But most of us are also aware that promised efficiency gains don’t always pan out.

And the cost of new public construction is extraordinarily high these days— indeed, it borders on scandalous. That’s another reason that public officials need to think twice, if not three times, before committing scarce public resources to major projects.

Far better to first consider the cost of upgrading or expanding existing facilities, particularly when those facilities have historic qualities that are worth maintaining.

If Tower had all of its other needs addressed, the argument for investing in significant new facilities might be more compelling. But the city has many other needs that require attention now, or will need addressing in the future. The city is in the midst of an aggressive economic development effort centered on the harbor, and that is likely to require additional city investment going forward. The city’s water quality remains an issue, despite recent investments in filtration that have made a significant difference. The Tower-Breitung wastewater system will likely need future expansion if the currently-planned new residential and commercial growth in Tower comes to fruition. The condition of city streets are a constant bone of contention for many residents.

While small cities have been able to tap state and federal sources of funding for such improvements in the past, there is reason to fear that such funds won’t be available in the future. The federal budget submitted this week by the Trump administration would eliminate major funding streams, like the Community Development Block Grant program and Rural Development, that have been instrumental over the years in helping small communities provide critical infrastructure for their residents.

President Trump has made it clear he doesn’t see value in directing federal resources to rural areas, and if his funding priorities win out in Washington, D.C., small rural communities will be far more dependent on their limited local tax bases to fund basic infrastructure. For the city of Tower to bond for millions of dollars for new city buildings at such a time is fraught with risk.

This does not suggest that the city should do nothing on facilities. City hall is badly in need of a facelift and improvements that could make it a more user-friendly space. The fire and ambulance services need additional space, but the city should explore expansion at the current location before moving ahead with a major new facility located somewhere else. The city certainly doesn’t need to be building apartments for ambulance personnel, a suggestion that seemed to crop up suddenly in discussions about the joint emergency facilities. That suggestion signaled to many that facility planners were getting a bit too grandiose.

At this point, it’s useful to step back and reconsider, and get some more input from the public before taking steps the city could come to regret.

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