BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Nearly twelve years in the making – through four different mayors and six city councils, the construction of a new Amtrak depot platform was approved by the Fort Madison City Council Tuesday.
It took former Mayor Brad Randolph about 30 minutes in an A-to-Z come-along for council members on the finances of the project at it’s regular meeting, before the council approved the $2.7 million project with a 6-1 vote.
The meeting was held with under emergency protocols with the public viewing via livestream and city staff in other rooms outside the council chambers. Fort Madison Police Chief Mark Rohloff stood at the entry to the chambers and those who wanted to speak on issues, either did so by phone or were called into council chambers if they wanted to speak.
The handling of the meeting, met open meetings laws under emergency protocols, which were verified by the city’s retained law firm Lynch Dallas out of Cedar Rapids.
Ryan Drew, of the Southeast Iowa Building and Trades Association made a final plea to the council to reconsider approving the bid from Iowa Bridge & Culvert of Washington, and to rebid the project to allow another firm a chance to rebid the work.
Drew even said that local contractor Seither & Cherry told him they missed the contract bid date and had interest in bidding the project.
Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said the city was getting on thin ice with the Iowa Department of Transportation, who has given the city two extensions to execute the project that includes federal and state grant money.
Mohrfeld said he was on the phone with DOT and has talked with the state legislators about the DOT’s bidding requirements.
He said DOT brought up several points including the fact there would be no guarantees if the city was to ask to have the project rebid as far as bidders and costs.
“And they through in another wrinkle. We had a ten year window on a grant to start this project. We’re in year 12. We’re in two years of extension on this,” Mohrfeld said. “He said, ‘Guys, at some point your extension is over. He said that out loud without solicitation.”
Councilman Robert Morawitz, who voted against the contract approval, said the city had no control over the delay of the project citing many changes required by Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Amtrak.
“These delays aren’t the fault of the city, yet the hold these extensions over our heads.” Morawitz said.
The city has already paid $74,000 in engineering fees and have a $7,000 on that hasn’t been paid, so the city is already in $81,000 total since the project began, Randolph said.
He said the city has asked Amtrak to backfill some of those funds, but he hasn’t heard anything on that in the past two to three weeks.
We haven’t heard anything back on that because Amtrak has other things in the mix, but they are looking at a $300 million loss due to the virus and decreased ridership, so they said now is not the time to ask for more money. But I have asked,” Randolph said.
He said if the city moves forward the city would have to put another $176,000 back into the project because that’s what the city has committed to make the $2.8 million needed with contingencies included.
The money had been earmarked in previous budgets, but was at some point pulled out and spent on other obligations, Randolph said.
Randolph also said Amtrak was looking at “rather large” sum, to make the current facility to make it ADA compliant.
“If they could do this for less it would be a win for the (Federal Rail Administration) and Amtrak because it was less money spent now versus a lot of money later.”
Randolph said he tried to get the Amtrak with FRA approval to pick up the city’s $176,000 share, but said that didn’t happen as those groups wanted to see the city put some kind of commitment into the project.
Mohrfeld said the city could still be on the hook for some furnishings and things in addition to the depot.
Current the city is using $1.55 million plus a contingency allotment from Amtrak, through approval of the FRA, combined with the city’s $176,000 commitment. The rest comes from $400,000 from Iowa DOT, and $686,000 in federal transportation grants.
If the city had rejected the bid, Randolph said they would be looking at anywhere from 68,000 to $700,000 in repayment of DOT grants used to refurbish the historical depot to get it ready for Amtrak to move the depot. If the move didn’t happen the city could be on the hook for those grants
Councilman Chris Greenwald, who was also on hand to speak to the project during the public hearing, said the city had received a letter previously that the city DOT would be asking for between $300,000 and $700,000 and that would likely be a negotiation on the refund.
Mohrfeld said DOT officials used the number $700,000 on the last phone call he had about the project.
“That was shared very specifically on that call with DOT,” Mohrfeld said.
Councilman Chad Cangas said if the city’s on the hook for $700,000, then they have to spend $176,000.
“If that’s accurate we have to spend $176,000. But if that’s not exactly how this is going to work, I’m gonna say it again, any significant amount coming out of our pocket, you can pass it without me.”
In other action, the council:
• approved the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, 6-1. Councilman Tyler Miller opposed the budget and said the council didn’t work hard enough on the budget and the budget does nothing to put the city on better footing.
• approved a rezoning request from Charles Craft, on behalf of Riverfest to build a storage facility in the 1700 block of 39th Street. Zoning was changed from single-family dwelling to a B-3 service and wholesale district.