The City of Onalaska has just a few weeks to trim roughly $6 million from its $10 million 2018 capital improvements budget.
Onalaska City Engineer Jarrod Holter said it’s always challenging to prioritize projects.
“We’ve got some large neighborhood projects that we feel that the infrastructure is due to be replaced and we want to try and catch up on those,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure our infrastructure is up to date and make sure we’re up to standards.”
To do that, Holter said the city expects to borrow $3.7 million for capital improvement projects, such as repaving streets, replacing water and sewer lines, and parks upgrades in 2018.
That will mean postponing many projects and prioritizing areas of greatest need.
At the top of Holter’s list are sidewalk and street maintenance and street repairs on Theater and Rider’s Club Roads.
He said sidewalk and street maintenance are two of the biggest bang for the buck projects the city can invest in.
At a meeting in early October, the Board of Public Works took the first step to chip away at the $10.5 million budget, cutting nearly $3 million worth of projects.
This included the removal of a $200,000 preliminary design study intended to address traffic congestion and safety concerns at the intersection of Greens Coulee and Main Street near the Coulee Golf Bowl and the Hwy. 53 overpass.
This project garnered strong support during public comment at the Oct. 3, meeting.
Residents complained the intersection was dangerous especially during rush-hour traffic.
Jerry Jorgenson of Onalaska said the problem is particularly bad for those trying to get out of Greens Coulee at 5 p.m.
“You pull up to the intersection and there are six to eight cars stacked up to make a left-hand turn coming into the valley, there are two cars looking you straight in the eye coming out of Kwik Trip and neither one is using their signal,” he said. “To add another little bit of complexity, nobody drives 25 miles an hour on East Main Street.”
Jorgenson encouraged the board to come out and observe the intersection at 5 p.m. if they wanted proof.
“It’s very dangerous and it’s getting worse and worse as more people move into the valley,” he said.
Jay Jaehnke echoed Jorgenson’s concerns saying the growth in Greens Coulee has only exacerbated the traffic congestion.
He said it’s not safe to make a left turn out of Greens Coulee during rush-hour traffic.
“I really think we need to do the planning study to take a look at a good solution before we have some significant negative happenings at that intersection,” he said.
While the preliminary plan has been cut from the 2018 budget, a less extensive schematic design survey was left in which allows the city to begin investigating solutions to the problem.
To fit more into this year’s budget, the city could take a unique approach and bond utility projects separately from the regular capital improvements budget.
“What we’re also looking at right now is the possibility of doing some mortgage revenue bonds, which we haven’t done for a number of years,” Holter said. “That would free us up more movement to do more projects.”
Mortgage revenue bonds would allow the city to borrow additional funds for utility projects such as water, sewer and stormwater drainage. The bonds would be backed by utility revenues.
Holter said this strategy could free up millions from the capital improvement’s budget.
“Whether we bond the money via the revenue mortgage bonds or the general fund capital improvement budget, the utility still pays the bills,” he said. “It’s just how it is structured and how it reflects on the utility.”
The city has until mid-December to finalize the capital improvements budget.
“More projects could go back in,” Holter said.
The Board of Public Works is set to revisit the capital improvements budget at it’s next meeting Nov. 7.
Holter said the board is likely to discuss the use of mortgage revenue bonds to catch up on projects.
A public hearing will be held Dec. 5, during this times residents can ask questions or request projects be removed from or added to the budget.
“Hardly anybody shows up,” Holter said recalling public hearings in past years. “Over the last 22 years now, we get one or two people maybe a year because they have a project or something.”
He said the only time he remembered a large public participation was roughly 15 years ago.
“We had money for the skate park down by the high school and they took half of it out. They only funded half of it and about 20 young people came in and got up the podium and very politely stated their plea,” Holter said.
He said after receiving public input, the Common Council voted to restore the missing funding for the skate park.
The Common Council is expected to review the budget at the Dec. 12 meeting.