A La Crosse committee took steps Thursday to eliminate an annual fee for water irrigation systems and get started on improvements to the Riverside Park bandshell.

The Finance and Personnel Committee voted 5-1 to eliminate a $50 yearly charge associated with street privilege permits to allow sprinkler systems in the public right-of-way, with council member Phillip Ostrem casting the sole dissenting vote.

Mayor Tim Kabat

Kabat

The fee was put into place back in 2012, but went unenforced since then because, Mayor Tim Kabat said, it’s “unenforceable.” Of an estimated 1,900 ground sprinkler systems installed on city boulevards, only 622 property owners went through the proper permitting process. Most don’t know the permit is required, much less that it asks for annual renewal, and some don’t even know they have the system.

“There are some cases where people purchased property, and they didn’t know there was an underground sprinkler there,” Kabat said.

Those 622 people paid the initial application fee, but weren’t charged the annual fee until this year, when notices were sent out.

“Notices went out to the first group of people — and these were people who filled out an application so they had a record of them — and the phones started ringing,” La Crosse Common Council president Martin Gaul said.

While Gaul said it’s important for the city to know where these irrigation systems are when doing street and sidewalk projects, he sympathized with the citizens who complained.

“This is just unnecessary for us to charge a $50 fee on an annual basis. It’s excessive,” Gaul said.

Kabat agreed, adding that the permit didn’t warrant an annual renewal.

“If somebody does install an underground sprinkler, they’re not going to put them in and take them out and put them in and take them out,” Kabat said.

However, it serves the city’s interests to know where the underground sprinklers are to avoid damaging them. While he said property owners who install sprinkler systems do so at their own risk, Kabat wondered if there was a more streamlined approach that would better serve both the city and property owners.

“If there’s really no ramification for not following it, all you’re really doing is penalizing the people who are trying to follow it,” Kabat said.

Under the change, residents will still need to pay the $50 application fee, which covers administrative costs and the cost of recording on the deed for the property that there is an encroachment on the public right of way.

Bandshell

After years of planning, a project to repair Riverside Park bandshell, used for free concerts and entertainment throughout the summer, could be underway as soon as spring 2018.

The committee voted 4-2 to release $1.14 million in funds allocated from the past four years of capital improvement budgets and leftover funds from previous projects, allowing them to be used for the repairs. If the decision is approved by the full council next week, the move would direct the city’s parks and engineering departments to begin the process of restoring and repairing the bandshell, fixing the electronic system and structure.

Representatives from several outdoor concert and recreation groups — including Moon Tunes, La Crosse Concert Band and La Crosse Jazz Orchestra — came to the meeting to urge the city to follow through on years of planning and fund raising by their groups.

“The time is now and the stars are aligned,” said Terry Bauer, a member of Valley View Rotary Club, which organizes Moon Tunes.

The concert series, which draws thousands of people into downtown on a weekly basis in the summer, has been raising money for the repairs for years, and Bauer said its donors are growing impatient.

“We have a downtown that is super vibrant,” Bauer said. “We need to fix and repair the bandstand to a bandshell format.”

Kabat spoke in favor of the project, calling Riverside Park “La Crosse’s most-loved place,” and saying the donation from the users “underscores just how important this is.”

However, Gaul, who does not sit on the committee, urged the council members who were to wait 60 days until after the capital improvement budget for 2018, which includes an additional $100,000 for the bandshell project, is over, which he said would give the city a more accurate picture of their finances.

Committee members Barb Janssen and David Marshall agreed, saying they wanted to make sure the proper procedure was followed before spending the money.

However, proponents of the project said the money has been allocated by previous councils during the last five years.

“This is a priority project, and we have the funds in place that have long over time been built up for use in this project,” council member Paul Medinger said.

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Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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