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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Why has the Colfax Municipal Building basement been closed to the public for nearly 25 years?
What would it take to remodel the Department of Public Works Building to also house the Colfax Police Department?
These were the two questions the Colfax Village Board’s Public Property Committee identified as the first steps toward making improvements for the village’s administrative offices, the police department and the Colfax Public Library at a meeting held August 23.
“As a (village) board, we have to coalesce around what we think the administration needs, and also the police department and the library,” said Gary Stene, village trustee and chair of the public property committee.
Village trustees Margaret Burcham and Anne Jenson also serve on the public property committee.
The village bought the Department of Public Works building on Railroad Avenue so that all of the equipment could be stored under one roof and so that administrative offices could move out there, Stene said.
More than 10 years ago, plans were drawn up to remodel the DPW building.
Offices for the DPW staff and a small conference room were completed.
Construction in the rest of the building for administrative offices, a meeting room for the village board and space for the police department were determined to be too expensive, and the plan was abandoned.
So far, the village has spent about $1 million on the purchase price of the DPW building, the remodeling for the Department of Public Works and on remodeling the east end of the building for the Colfax Rescue Squad.
Stene said he was interested in hearing ideas from Burcham, Jenson and members of the public attending the meeting.
In attendance at the meeting were Mark Johnson, owner of Cafe II Coffee Shop & Bakery on Main Street and a member of the Colfax Elevator Commission; Lisa Bragg-Hurlburt, director of the Colfax Public Library; Colfax Police Chief William Anderson; and Gary Swartz, also a member of the Colfax Elevator Commission.
The library needs more space, and there are other buildings that could be renovated, Burcham said.
But instead of renovating buildings, it might be better to build new, like the Village of Elk Mound, which built a new village hall that also includes the police department, she said.
Building a new village hall might be more cost effective than renovating another building, such as 619 Main for the police department, Burcham said.
Burcham suggested that the vacant lots on University Avenue on the east side of town along Eighteen Mile Creek would be possibility as a location for a village hall and police station.
More than 10 years ago, when the Colfax Community Fire Department was looking for a location for a new fire station, the lots Burcham is referring to were considered.
It was immediately determined that since the lots are located in a floodplain, they are off limits for any kind of municipal building.
EM village hall
The Village of Elk Mound built a new 42×60 square foot (2,520 square feet) village hall in 2010.
The bid accepted by the Elk Mound Village Board in May of 2010 was $356,000 for the village hall and architectural and design fees.
The Village of Elk Mound paid $100,000 for the lot where the village hall is located, although the village only used half the lot for the village hall, and the remainder of the lot is now the location for Dollar General.
The Village of Elk Mound also sold the previous municipal building to the Elk Mound Community Fire Department for $250,000.
Construction costs are estimated to increase by 10 percent per year.
At an increase of 10 percent per year since 2010 on the bid of $356,000 plus $100,000 for the lot, Elk Mound’s village hall would probably cost around $1.5 million today.
At 2,520 feet, the Elk Mound Village Hall has offices for the village clerk and deputy clerk as well as the department of public works, and space for the Elk Mound Police Department that includes an interview room and an evidence room, and a large conference room for village board and committee meetings.
According to Colfax’s Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan (2014-2034), the space in the Colfax Municipal Building, which includes the clerk’s office at 610 square feet, the police department at 780 square feet and the library at 1,200 square feet, making up a total of 2,590 square feet — or 70 square feet more than the Elk Mound village hall.
If the library were moved out of the Colfax Municipal building, the total square footage on the main floor, including the police department, would be roughly the same as the Village of Elk Mound has available for administrative offices, the police department and the meeting room.
The comprehensive plan also addresses inadequate space for the library and notes that the Indianhead Federated Library System estimates that the Colfax library needs 10,000 to 12,000 square feet, which is considerably larger than the current 1,200 square feet.
The village has no money to do anything, Jenson said.
Talking about finding more space or building more space is useless, she said, noting that the village board has talked about expanding the available space “so many times.”
“If we have no money, we cannot do it,” Jenson said.
Stene said his intention was to put plans in place that would help Colfax “to get there.”
Concrete steps to take are necessary to accomplish the goal, he said, even if it ends up taking 10 years to reach the goal.
“I know we’ve had lots of discussion, and I know we have no money,” Stene said.
Still, the village board must coalesce around a direction to go and then lay out the steps to get there, he said.
The village board has talked and discussed many times, “but nothing ends up getting done,” Jenson said.
It may take a special meeting of the village board, but the steps must be laid out to achieve the goal of expanding space for the administrative offices, the police department and the library, Stene said.
Years ago when a survey of village residents was conducted, when asked if they wanted to “do something” with the municipal building, they said, “yes.” But when residents were asked if they wanted to spend money on the municipal building, they said “no,” Stene noted.
The needs for the library, the administrative offices and the police department are there, he said.
In the years since then, the Colfax Municipal Building Restoration Group has raised funds through bake sales, aluminum can collection, donations and other fund raisers and has spent well over $100,000 on a new electrical service for the building and renovating the auditorium.
No one has a copy of the report about what exactly put the basement of the municipal building off limits to the public, said Lynn Niggemann, village administrator-clerk-treasurer.
Electrical problems are one of the items that makes it unusable for the public, she noted.
Niggemann said she has contacted various state offices, and has talked to different people, and no one has any information available.
The Colfax Municipal Building basement used to be the senior citizen nutrition site and also was used for a variety of other community events.
Problems with the drainage from a dishwasher contributed to water problems under the floor and water damage in the basement, according to articles in the Colfax Messenger that were published at the time.
Eventually the wood flooring in the basement heaved.
The municipal building basement has not been used for nearly 25 years, and additional water infiltration helped create a mold problem.
About 10 years ago, the village board approved hiring a company for approximately $17,000 to come in to clean out the basement and remove the flooring, remove the Sheetrock and plaster from the walls, as well as remove other materials stored in the basement.
Village employees were becoming ill from the mold spores that permeated the building, and cleaning out the basement helped reduce the amount of mold spores circulating.
About six years ago, the village board approved spending approximately $70,000 on drainage around the outside of the building, which has worked remarkably well to keep the basement dry, although there are a few problem spots where the floor is damp in the southeast and southwest corners of the basement.
The standing puddles of water and water cascading through the wall during a heavy rain “like a waterfall” have been eliminated from the municipal building basement.
Lisa Ludwig, former director of the Colfax Public Library, actually videotaped the “waterfall” coming into the basement following a rain storm.
One action item would be find to out why the basement cannot be used, Stene said.
If the basement could be used, “it would be a step in the right direction,” he said.
The village already owns the municipal building, and it is necessary to figure out how to use the entire building, from the basement up to the auditorium, Stene said.
The village board must find out why the basement is not usable, what to do to make it usable, and how to go about making it usable, he said.
Being able to use the basement, which would include handicapped accessibility, would add about 2,500 square feet of usable space — or the same amount of space as there is in the Elk Mound village hall.
The village would need to build a new DPW building in order to move the police department to the DPW building on Railroad Avenue, Police Chief Anderson said, noting that he has the blueprints and schematics in his office of the previous plans to locate the police department in the DPW building.
On the other hand, the police department already has the furniture needed to move into the building at 619 Main, he said.
The building at 619 Main Street is the former Dental Wellness Clinic, and the building is owned by Dr. Larry Phillips.
The only thing that would need to be done with the Phillips building is to make the doors and windows secure, Police Chief Anderson said.
Johnson noted that as a business owner on Main Street, he viewed it as valuable for the police department to be located on Main Street.
If the police department moved to 619 Main, the police department would have a bigger space, and then the village’s administrative offices could move into the police department, Stene said.
The building at 619 Main Street, according to the real estate listing, is 1,564 square feet — twice as large as the existing police department’s office — or 2.6 times larger than the existing village offices and meeting room.
The library needs a meeting space, Bragg-Hurlburt said.
The library frequently receives calls from the public asking if there is a meeting space available, and the village clerk’s office and the village board meeting room would remain as meeting space, she said.
The cost to purchase the Phillips building would be a drawback, plus it would need to be remodeled for the police department, Stene said.
The building at 619 Main is listed for sale at $129,000.
Police Chief Anderson said the interior of the building would not have to be remodeled for the police department, and the only cost would be to make sure the windows and doors could be locked.
The pole shed that goes with the 619 Main Street building could be as storage for items that are in cold storage at the DPW building, he said.
By purchasing the Phillips building, the village would just have one more building to maintain, Jenson said.
Ten years ago, it cost $95,000 to rebuild First Avenue. This year, it cost $350,000 to rebuild Cedar Street, Stene said.
No municipalities have the money to rebuild all of their roads, he said.
Everyone who serves on the village board is always trying to figure out how to pay all of the bills, Stene said.
The library is a good asset for the village. The building at 619 Main “as a cop shop is a good idea, but we don’t have the dough to do it,” he said.
People serving on the village board want to do the best job they can, and sometimes “it’s overwhelming,” Stene said.
Bragg-Hurlburt said she was pleased to hear the property committee was not opposed to the library staying in the municipal building and asked if the village board could issue a letter of support for the elevator project, which would help with grant applications.
Stene noted that one of the action items could be a letter of support for the library.
Niggemann said in her opinion, it would be best for the village to “work with what we have” and use the existing buildings.
The police department could move to the DPW building, and there would be more space for the administrative offices and library in the municipal building, she said.
Building a new DPW building out by the lift station on state Highway 170 could be part of a long-term plan, Niggemann said.
“We should use what we have and make work,” she said, adding that she is passionate about the idea of the village hall remaining on Main Street where it is a central part of the village.
Police Chief Anderson said he wondered if there would be resistance from the department of public works to having the police department occupy the same building.
If it is part of a long-term strategic plan to build a new DPW building, having the police department and public works in the same building could work for now, Niggemann said.
Another action item would be to review the plans for the DPW building to see how the police department would fit there, Stene said.
The village’s audit is being completed now, and the audit report for 2022 will be available by early this fall, Niggemann said.
The audit report will establish how much money is available in the general fund and what is available in the designated and restricted funds, she said.
Once the audit report is complete, Ehlers Associates, the village’s financial consultant, will be able to do a financial outlook, which will lay out when the village’s loans are paid off and when more debt would be possible, Niggemann said.
Once that information is available, the village board will be able to do some planning about taking on more debt, she said.
State law allows municipalities to borrow up to 5 percent of the equalized value.
The village’s equalized value is $82.96 million for 2022, according to information available from Dunn County, which is an increase of a little more than $15 million from 2021.
Based on an equalized value of $82.96 million, the village’s borrowing capacity is $4.4 million.
The borrowing capacity for the 2021 equalized value of $67.8 million was $3.3 million.
The property committee agreed that the action items should be to find out how to make the basement of the municipal building usable and to review the plans for the DPW building.
The property committee plans to meet again soon to continue working on the action items.