BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
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.