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Survey to gather public opinion on bonds

Coeur d’Alene wants to know if residents are willing to pay extra tax money for a new library, fire trucks or community center.

The city is considering asking voters – perhaps in February – for permission to sell bonds, which would be repaid with property taxes. But before the Coeur d’Alene City Council makes any decision as to how much bond money is needed or what projects it would pay for, the city wants to know the receptiveness of voters.

“We want to determine the probability of a bond passing,” City Finance Director Troy Tymesen said.

It takes a supermajority, or two-thirds voter approval, for a city to pass a general obligation bond.

Starting next week, an independent consultant will conduct focus groups with Coeur d’Alene residents. Robinson Research of Spokane will ask what residents think about the city’s need for a new library, fire department equipment, a community center and a city hall expansion.

Robinson Research also will conduct a 600-person telephone survey.

The city and Lake City Development Corp., the city’s urban renewal agency, are each paying $5,000 of the $20,000 consultation fee. The Coeur d’Alene Library Foundation is contributing the remaining $10,000.

The results of the focus groups and telephone poll will help the city prioritize which projects residents are most interested in funding with bonds. Mayor Sandi Bloem recently formed advisory groups that narrowed the list of potential projects to include the new library, fire department equipment and training, and the proposed community center.

The Coeur d’Alene Public Library Foundation plans to build a new library, totaling at least 50,000 square feet, across from City Hall on a lot it has already purchased with the help of LCDC.

Initially, the Foundation promised not to seek a bond to fund construction because members didn’t think it would pass. That was right after 61 percent of Coeur d’Alene voters in 1999 shot down a proposed bond measure to build a $6.3 million community center.

Instead, the Foundation focused on grants and donations.

But that was back in 2000 when the foundation was looking at a 30,000-square-foot library that would cost about $3 million. With Coeur d’Alene’s population growth, the foundation has upgraded its plans to include at least a 50,000-square-foot library with a $7 million price tag.

“The whole project has changed,” said Ruth Pratt, the foundation’s development coordinator. “In the year 2000 it wasn’t the same project and Coeur d’Alene was a lot smaller.”

Pratt said the foundation has found few grants for construction and that other cities in the region have used bonds to fund new public libraries. The foundation has raised about $1.6 million, including the eventual sale of the current library on Harrison Avenue, to contribute toward building costs.

The Coeur d’Alene Fire Department needs money for new fire trucks, which can cost $400,000 each, training and remodels for fire stations 1 and 2. Tymesen also wants to refinance the new fire station on 15th Street and the police station, by rolling the payments into a fire bond, which would be a cheaper interest rate. Tymesen estimates the fire department’s needs total about $8.2 million.

The community center idea is less concrete. The city is currently working with the Coeur d’Alene School District on a land swap that could result in a new middle school for the district and a community center for the city.

The city and school district are looking at trading Lakes Middle School and Persons Field. The city would convert Lakes Middle School into a community center with a pool. The school district would build a new middle school on Persons Field. They jointly own the field, which is just two blocks south of the 15th Street school.

The swap can’t occur until both properties are appraised and the school board and City Council agree to the deal.

Some people think it’s too premature to include the community center in the bond discussions because there are no clear plans. But the survey and focus groups could help the city determine that.

Councilman Ron Edinger is opposed to linking the fire department’s needs to the library and including them on the same bond election; “Let each one of them stand on their own merits and let the people decide what they want to do.”

If the library and fire department projects were linked, that would mean the city would need to ask voters for permission to seek about $15 million in bonds.

Tymesen wouldn’t disclose what that would mean for the average tax payer because he said it’s too early to tell. He said there are too many variables and too many unknowns until the survey is done.

Tymesen said alternative funding, such as bonds, is needed for these capital projects because there isn’t enough cash in the city’s pocketbook. Each year the city can increase property taxes by 3 percent, but that generates only about $280,000 in new money.

When a fire truck costs $400,000 and a new library can cost $7 million, Tymesen said it doesn’t leave the city many options. By having a bond vote, Tymesen said residents can decide if they want to pay more in taxes to build a new library, community center or buy equipment for the fire department.

“Voters always want to have input,” Tymesen said.

The last time Coeur d’Alene voters approved a bond was in 1994 when they passed a $9 million bond to upgrade city streets.

The city also is considering expanding City Hall into the new downtown library building. There’s a mix of opinions about whether the City Hall expansion should be included in a bond measure. Bloem and Pratt both said it shouldn’t be tied to a bond, at least not at this time. Yet Tymesen said that’s something the focus groups and survey should consider.

If residents indicate they are interested in supporting a bond election, the City Council would have to approve what projects would be included in the bond and how much money is needed.

It’s unknown when the council may look at any proposals, but Bloem said the discussion needs to move fast if the city wants it on a February ballot.

“We’ve determined that we need more information and more of a feeling about some of the projects and what the advantages would be and what the concerns might be,” Bloem said.

 

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