Depot gets chopped as council spars over budget woes

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – The proposed new Amtrak depot in Riverview Park was just one of many budget items that fell victim to a suffocating city budget.

In an emotionally charged marathon budget workshop lasting more than three hours, the Fort Madison City Council carved out expenditures that put about $500,000 back into the city’s general fund.

The relocation of the Amtrak Depot came front and center quickly when Councilman Chad Cangas said he was ready to wash his hands of the Amtrak depot.

“I just haven’t seen the commitment from Amtrak to this community to invest any more money in that project,” Cangas said at the beginning of the meeting.

City Manager David Varley had proposed several options including abandoning the depot project, closing Old Fort, cutting staff, trimming budgets, and reclaiming a $177,000 revolving loan fund for the general fund.

Dumping the depot puts about $350,000 back into the city’s general fund, which Varley said was in dire condition.

Of that money, $91,500 will be saved from Quality of Life bonds and that money has to be earmarked in the budget for parks and other quality of life expenditures. $135,000 will go back to the city’s hotel/motel tax funds, $200,000 was allocated from the proposed 2019/20 fiscal year budget and will be left in the budget. There was $63,500 that was already spent on engineering fees through a grant that will have to be reimbursed out of the savings.

The city’s minimum working capital in the proposed budget stood at $350,000, which Varley said wasn’t enough to cover one month of cash flow. Closing the depot puts that working capital back at $732,067.

Councilman Matt Mohrfeld indicated if the council voted on the depot at that point, it would fail.

“That depot’s really cool, but when it comes right down to it, we’re not going to pass it. I guarantee you there’s four people that don’t think we have the money for it, that also think it’s very cool,” Mohrfeld said.

After Mohrfeld’s comment Mayor Brad Randolph, who has championed the depot relocation and made a commitment to former Mayor Steve Ireland to see the project through, told the council it was time to abandon the project.

“As much as this pains me to say, I think it’s probably, you’re going to hate this, but I think it’s time to let the Amtrak go. I can’t, in good conscience, justify it anymore.”

Councilman Chris Greenwald told the council that if the depot project was abandoned, the city should get out of all projects that weren’t a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

“Shut her down,” Greenwald said referring to the city. “Let’s board her up. Then I think you have to re-examine…you can’t justify the fort, you can’t justify so many things. If Amtrak isn’t worth $40,000 a year, the Fort’s worth $90K? I’m sorry, that’s just a tough pill for me to swallow.”

Councilman Bob Morawitz said it’s subsidizing a private business and he’d rather put that money into existing businesses.

Varley said the one big thing that made a difference was the $300,000 annual loss from riverboat gambling and the reduction in sales tax revenues have resulted in a different picture than when the project  began.

After the council had spent close to 90 minutes hashing out options Varley had put forth, he asked if he could make a couple comments. He said the city had to start looking inward in lean times and then possibly look back outward when city revenues improve and stabilize.

Varley said it didn’t make sense to him to give organizations outside the city financial support, when departments heads like Fire Chief Joey Herren have to continue to operate lean.

“Our number one priority is to our own gosh-darned departments. Its frustrating for me to sit here and see us say we’re gonna give away to other people – $25K here… $27K here. It’s like – ‘screw you Joey you don’t get the money’. He has trouble getting foam for the trucks, they’re cut to the bone. They’ve had the same budget for five years,” Varley said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Randolph started taking what amounted to straw polls on options to give Varley direction in finalizing the budget for presentation in two weeks. No official votes on any of the issues were taken, but the polling results were documented by Varley for budget adjustments.

One of the first was to cut a certain amount of money from Old Fort operations. Morawitz said if the city was still interested in bringing Viking Cruise Lines to the city, they couldn’t cut funding to the Fort. The council was split on cutting funding to the Fort.

Randolph said the city was spending too much on the Fort.

“We are spending way too much money on the Fort for what we’re getting. You want to talk about return on investment stuff…? We’re spending too much money on that Fort.”

He asked Varley to look at where the city can cut back on Fort subsidies.

The council, fresh off a consensus to abandon the depot project, indicated their preference to not contribute to the city fireworks display, the Mexican Fiesta, the Riverfront Business District,  nor the Southeast Iowa Economic & Regional Port Authority for a savings of $10,900.

The council gave a consensus to not eliminate any positions in the city. Mohrfeld went after a full-time position at the library saying the parks department works with two full-time and two part-time staff while the library works with three full-time and four part-time.

City library director Sara Clendening defended her staff saying if any people are pulled from the staff, the library would have to reduce hours.

“Why does it always come to that,” Mohrfeld asked. “We have some of the nicest parks in the area and the public works department has streamlined. “Why does it always come to that?”

The council did agree to keep a $25,000 contribution to the Lee County Economic Development for one more year.

Additional cuts included $3,500 in new police and city hall signs, $22,000 in various cuts in general fund departments. The council also gave consensus to reclaim $177,000 from a Revolving Loan Fund.

About Chuck Vandenberg 4773 Articles
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5 Comments

  1. Kudos to the Ft Madison City Council for having the combined backbone to sharply pare spending in the face of extremely reduced revenues. City Manager David Varley is to be commended for bringing into the light obvious methods for realigning expenditures with expected income reductions, even if actually facing up to making these changes wasn’t easy. Not much has been discussed about future revenue stream projections in town, but it’s possible to imagine further decline with the loss of Shopko.

  2. Since all that money was saved how about fixing these broke ass roads in this town?
    28th street is a mess.most of the road is missing and half is sinking in.fix it now.after all it is our money..

  3. Frustrated and mad. It seems that it is a confusing message this article is sending, or really, the message from the Council!

    So, we are likely to scrap an anticipated (an already invested projected) with the centralized Amtrak depot to downtown FM. I lived, at the time, in excellent view of the raising of that depot to make it accessible to the trains. Then, of course, there were modifications to the building and all of the new concrete for the parking areas. The investment is made. It seems that we don’t WANT it in the new location, because if it were in the new location, it would bolster our very dead downtown. I nearly laughed myself (for crying) off of my bed, reading Morawitz’s statement of putting the funds into our existing businesses. And what would they be? Beyond Police, Firemen, and our library, our downtown is gone for retail. With the faith of our last original store, The Colony Shop, we don’t have a place to buy shoes, a dress, or a suit. We don’t have a restaurant to buy a meal, unless you are partial to funky tacos. But if you are in the market for a dollhouse, FM downtown is your mark.

    To close tourism for the replica of The Fort is the mindset of short-sighted men. We live in a historic town, but closing The Fort is a slap of that fact, and in the face of our assets. How will we DRAW people to Fort Madison if everything is closed? We certainly are NOT drawing people to FM due to our Parks, with the exception of the Holiday-lit floats that were relocated to Riverview Park between Thanksgiving and New Years. (BTW ~ it was a better setup in Central Park, whereas you could park and go look at the floats. But, I digress.)

    In all the “struggle” that the Council is having making the budget work, they certainly DIDN’T WINCE when they gave the City Manager an 8% increase to his already inflated paycheck. I am sorry if this offends him, but no one in a small town deserves to be making $115,169! Just, wow! If we, indeed, are ‘hurting’ for funds that we need to CLOSE FORT MADISON, ABANDON projects, affect other people’s paychecks and hours, let’s start with City Manager Varley. I don’t give a fig what other managers are making. I didn’t make THAT kind of money working 70 hours a week in New York City within Corporate America for the top men & women there! Puh-lease!

    Lastly, but certainly not least, we live in a community where money has been given for infrastructure improvements ~ 8 years ago! And still, our Business 61 is ridiculously a wreck. I have read ‘the schedule’ for anticipated/scheduled work, but it isn’t getting done. Where is the interest of that money going? Does that money indeed exist or has it been reallocated to pay for the beauty of our Parks? We need more public servants in our town, doing things for its upkeep and for free.

    If we can pay a City Manager 6-figures and give him an 8% raise without a fuss, this Council surely can use the funds into these projects WORK FOR THEM. Yes, don’t allow things to waste away and rot. If you are going to invest, then see it thru!

    With integrity and sincerity,

    Nancy Ann Hill

  4. Frustrated and mad. It seems that it is a confusing message this article is sending, or really, that the message from the Council is sending!

    So, apparently, in two weeks, we are likely to scrap an anticipated, invested projected with an Amtrak depot central to downtown FM. I lived, at the time, in excellent view of the raising of that depot to make it accessible to the trains. Then, of course, there were modifications to the building and all of the new concrete for the parking areas. The investment have been made. It seems that we don’t really WANT it in the new location, because if it were IN the new location, it would bolster our very dead downtown. I nearly laughed myself (for crying) off of my bed, reading Morawitz’s statement of putting the funds into our ‘existing businesses’. And what would they be? Beyond Police, Firemen, and our library, our downtown is gone for retail. With the continued faith of our last original store, The Colony Shop, we don’t have a place to buy new shoes, a dress, or a suit. We don’t have a restaurant to buy a meal, unless you are partial to funky tacos. But if you are in the market for a dollhouse, FM downtown is your mark.

    To close tourism for the replica of the old Fort is the mindset of short-sighted men. We live in a HISTORIC town (aka FORT Madison), but closing The Fort is a slap in the face of that fact and our assets. How will we DRAW people to Fort Madison if everything is closed? We certainly are NOT drawing people to FM DUE to our Parks, with the exception of the Holiday-lit floats that were relocated to Riverview Park between Thanksgiving and New Years. (BTW ~ it was a better setup in Central Park, whereas you could park and go look at the floats. But, I digress.)

    In all the ‘struggle’ that the Council is having with making the budget work, they certainly DIDN’T WINCE when they gave the City Manager an 8% increase to his already inflated paycheck. I am sorry if this offends him, but no one in a small town like FM deserves to be making $115,169! Just, wow! If we, indeed, are ‘hurting’ for funds that we need to CLOSE FORT MADISON tourism, ABANDON projects, affect OTHER people’s paychecks and hours, let’s start with City Manager Varley. I don’t give a fig what other managers are making. I didn’t make THAT kind of money working 70 hours a week in New York City within Corporate America for the top men & women at Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse First Boston! Puh-lease!

    Lastly, but certainly not least, we live in a community where money has been given for infrastructure improvements (ie. 13.5 million/8 years ago)! We received that money from the state at some point during the Bypass project. Well, the Bypass opened in 2011! And still, our Business 61 is ridiculously a wreck. I have read ‘the schedule’ for anticipated/scheduled work, but it isn’t getting done. Oh, by 2027, we are assured that it will be great. Super, but where is the interest of that money going? Does that money indeed still exist or has it been reallocated? We need more public servants in our town, doing things for its upkeep and for free. I would speer-head this group, but I can’t physically do the work myself.

    If we can pay a City Manager 6-figures and give him an 8% raise without a fuss, this Council surely can use the funds already invested into these projects, and really allow the projects to see the light of day ~ let the investment WORK FOR THEM. Yes, don’t allow things to waste away and rot. If you are going to invest, see it thru!

    We can’t pay people Metropolis wages. It is time we trim from our purses ~ not from others.

  5. They really want that new $30,000,000 school built even tho the one out there already is a disaster and even the teachers complain about it.these people in charge of our city all need fired asap.

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