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La Crosse passed its largest projects budget in several years: What's included?
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La Crosse passed its largest projects budget in several years: What's included?

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The city of La Crosse approved its largest capital improvement projects budget in several years on Thursday. Here’s what the $119 million tab will accomplish for the city next year:

The most expensive project the city will fund next year is the $62 million used to update its wastewater treatment plant facility. The plan will help bring the site up to new state and federal environmental standards.

The only other eight-figure project will go toward launching the River Point District development, starting by filling the lot and building utilities, sidewalks and roads. Those first steps will cost $19,780,000 total.

Long-awaited plans to reconstruct Fire Station No. 4 on the North Side will finally come to fruition, too, thanks to funding in the newly approved budget. The project was almost put on hold another year when funding was moved around, but is now set to be completed by the end of next year.

The city will also use $1 million to begin purchasing properties near Fire Station No. 1 on the South Side for a future public safety center — which would be a home for police, fire and inspection departments, and possible community spaces including affordable housing.

The project has been controversial in recent weeks, coinciding with calls to defund police departments across the country and igniting conversations about whether a heavier law enforcement presence in the Washburn and Powell-Poage-Hamilton Neighborhoods, with more Black residents, would make the residents truly feel safer.

The $1 million is just “seed money,” officials have said, to lock down properties that have recently gone on the market. The entire project is estimated to cost about $36 million, but the neighborhood won’t see a finished product for many years.

As it stands, Fire Station No. 1 resides at Market Street and Fifth Avenue, and on the same block as the former Freedom gas station, Pla-Mor Lanes bowling alley and several homes, though official purchases by the city have yet to be announced.

The city will invest the most money in projects that benefit its transportation and utilities.

About $14 million is dedicated to renovating streets around the city, including a new slope study for Bliss Road, which has experienced mudslides in recent years.

Planning and community development is the second largest investment for the city, largely for the River Point District, but other projects include new housing renovations and developments, aid toward the La Crosse County Historical Museum, funding for more Hear, Here improvements, a deeper look into plans for a new public market development, and more studies about the city’s environmental impact.

The city’s buildings and grounds will see about $3 million total in projects next year, including a renovation to City Hall’s first floor and improvements for two libraries.

For parks, upgrades to Carroll Park and Burns Park will occur in 2021, as will the outdoor lighting for the new Green Island tennis facility.

A lot of funding was moved around for park projects during the CIP budget process, many officials and community members worried that not enough investment was being given to a resource so many are using during the pandemic.

Through efforts, a new park shelter for Weigent Park was added to the list of projects for next year, but things like upgrades for the Myrick Park playground and bathrooms at Riverside Park will have to wait another year.

In the past, the city usually spends much less on its projects year-to-year. For comparison, the city approved just $44.5 million in projects for 2020, and even less, $33.5 million, for 2019.

When broken down, though, it’s clear that some major projects are at the root of an expensive 2021. Without upgrades to the wastewater treatment facility, the price would look more like $57 million, and without the River Point District plans, it would mirror past spending even more.

This is just the first step in what is shaping up to be a long budget-planning season, as the city faces financial hardship due to COVID-19.

On July 21, the city will host one of its first public meetings to begin discussions for its overall 2021 budget.

A few major projects, like wastewater treatment plant upgrades, make the 2021 budget unusually large. By comparison, the city approved just $44.5 million in projects for 2020, and even less, $33.5 million, for 2019.
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