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NL council reviews budget goals for new fiscal year

NORTH LIBERTY– As the North Liberty City Council began to set budget goals for the upcoming fiscal year, one thing emerged as a top priority: engaging the community in planning the city’s future.
Dollar values are hard to assign to a goal like that, but seeking citizen input before proceeding with big-ticket items became part of the discussion several times during the council’s Nov. 17 budget goal setting work session.
City Administrator Ryan Heiar went over a list of priorities council members submitted prior to the meeting, asking for feedback from the whole group, to ascertain where each fit in the council’s overall set of goals for the upcoming fiscal year.
Most of the city’s upcoming projects are continuations of those approved in previous fiscal years: improve the existing wastewater treatment plant to accommodate a population of 28,000 ($15.3 million); upgrade the city’s water treatment facility to serve a population of 30,000 ($13.2 million); reconstruct and widen Penn Street from Alexander Way to Interstate 380 ($1.79 million); develop infrastructure to support the new Liberty High School on the city’s east side ($4 million to improve Dubuque Street and North Liberty Road); and the on-going effort to complete phased improvements to Highway 965.
But when it came to future projects such as constructing a city campus that could house a new police department, developing an off-leash dog park, creating intra-city or regional transit opportunities and expanding services to North Liberty seniors, the council wanted more information and input before allocating funds in FY 2017.

Community visioning
Last year, the council considered holding a community visioning process to collect input from a wide range of residents about their hopes for the city’s overall growth and development.
It reappeared as a council goal last week. Council member Chris Hoffman asked if it would be part of the same process of seeking community input on future capital projects.
“Should they be happening at the same time, or as separate pieces of work by the community but alongside each other?” Hoffman asked.
Councilor Terry Donahue said his idea was that they would be separate processes, using visioning activities to define the broader picture and smaller focus groups to look at specific projects, while council member Coleen Chipman suggested projects like a civic campus would be just one of the talking points in the wider community visioning process.
A community visioning process is similar to writing a Comprehensive Plan, in that feedback is garnered from various interest groups and segments of residents to determine long-term strategic goals and direction for growth. Citizen feedback is used to create a written report serving as a guide for future decisions on development and public policy.
Heiar told the council hiring a professional firm to conduct a community visioning process could be a significant expense; the City of Marion recently paid around $200,000 to conduct the procedure, he said.
Council member Chris Hoffman questioned the need for a visioning process at this time, in light of its potential expense and other fiscal priorities the city has identified.
“There are unfortunately going to be a lot of projects that won’t make it to our CIP (Capital Improvements Plan) for a number of years due to things like Forevergreen Road and what’s happening with all the infrastructure at the high school,” said Hoffman.
Hoffman also noted the city recently updated its Comprehensive Plan in November 2013, and the city’s Parks Plan is now undergoing updates that will be considered soon.
Similarly, city staff and elected officials already work with the University Of Iowa’s Institute of Public Affairs every two years to review accomplishments and create new goals for the next 24 months.
“I wonder if this is beneficial to us as a community yet, based upon the growth we are experiencing. It would be tough for me to justify any expense for a visioning process right now,” Hoffman concluded.
But Mayor Amy Nielsen said the city’s continued growth, and the number of expensive projects, makes a visioning process more necessary.
“Because we have those things coming up, and we may have to make some value judgments, it’s even more important for us to be well in tune with the residents and get their feedback on prioritizing (certain projects) over another,” Nielsen said.
Newly-elected council member Jim Sayre said it made sense.
“If it’s to get folks engaged and informed, and understand what we do and get feedback on what we should do… it seems logical,” Sayre said. “You want to inform whatever plan you put together. They can help decide your priorities. We are just a few people sitting around a table trying to make a decision for an entire city: it seems like a no-brainer to get some feedback.”
Without a cost estimate to hire professionals to conduct a community visioning process, there was no direction from the council other than to ask Heiar to get more information on how it would work and present it at the next budget work session in January.

City campus
Adding to the desire for more citizen feedback was the concept of a civic campus.
A comprehensive administrative campus has been on the city’s long-range plan since 2006, and Shive-Hattery Architectural and Engineering firm presented initial concept drawings in August. With a number of design options and an estimated price tag of $15.9 million, the council asked that the next step be garnering community input to see what residents would be willing to support if the city should bond for a new facility.
That directive did not change.
“We need to know where folks stand,” said Donahue.
Getting citizen input will be part of Shive-Hattery’s design process for the project, Heiar reminded the council last week, though the firm had not yet provided a cost estimate for that task.
“Shive was working on a proposal to do that work,” said Heiar. “They have a lot of different experts and a marketing person who has helped with these things before.”

Council members agreed transportation options for people to get around the city and between neighboring communities remains a top priority, but without specific recommendations on how to make it happen, budgeting for it is difficult.
The council did allocate $50,000 in this fiscal year to allow a Transit Task Force to research intra-city transportation options and even pilot a small program, but to date, that money has not been spent.
The Transit Task Force, dormant since 2012, was re-established in early 2015 and reconvened for the first time last Thursday. Council member Chipman is on that committee, and she expects the group will identify transportation needs, craft new recommendations and present them to the council at a later date.
Meanwhile, Chipman said she would like to keep money in the budget for future research and pilot program opportunities.
“I see us using some of that ($50,000) to try some of those ideas, to see if they work. I’m hoping it will actually provide transportation to the citizens too,” said Chipman.
Intra-city transit is one need, but Hoffman hoped to look beyond North Liberty’s boundaries, as well. He proposed asking other municipalities to join with North Liberty to co-fund a study of transportation services countywide.
“I’m not sure you would get cooperation from the other entities, because it could mean a loss of revenue for them,” said Chipman, referring to federal dollars Coralville and Iowa City receive to support their transit systems. “If Coralville and Iowa City are not on board, it’s not going to float.”
Hoffman countered that broaching the subject with other cities about a study was still worth the effort.
“I have no idea what this would cost… but all of us can have discussion with our counterparts in other municipalities, to agree to study it; it doesn’t mean we have to go through with it,” Hoffman said.
Heiar suggested it was a conversation that should start with elected officials in each jurisdiction, perhaps through the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County’s Urban Area Policy Board, or at the next multi-jurisdictional Joint Government Meeting.
“We will make sure it’s on the agenda for the joint meeting in January,” Heiar said.

Senior social services
While the council recently approved a $1,500 grant to fund a part-time coordinator for North Liberty’s Senior Dining program, some councilors have suggested the city do more to support older residents.
They just aren’t sure what that support should look like.
“I would like to know what activities they would like,” said Donahue.
Mayor Nielsen said hiring a coordinator for broader senior services could be helpful “to identify what seniors might want to do, and create and facilitate programs,” said Nielsen. “We have a director for kids, but nothing like that for seniors. Even part-time would be a good idea.”
Hoffman suggested time- and cost-sharing with another agency that employs a senior services coordinator, but Donahue thought there might be other ways to meet the need.
“The Senior Center in Iowa City has a vast array of programs,” Donahue said. “I think it might behoove us to see if there is some programming they can export to us on a per-person cost basis, instead of hiring a person.”
Heair noted the consensus to support more senior programming, and said he would talk with current city personnel to seek ways to better partner with North Liberty’s Senior Council volunteers.

Off-leash dog park
Perhaps the biggest question mark in the budget planning process remains the city’s participation in establishing an off-leash dog park. Other than voicing general support, neither council nor administration were prepared to put even placeholder numbers in the upcoming budget.
“The city’s funding commitment is in question, but we need to work with all parties wanting to bring this to the city,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think anyone expects the city to go out and buy 10 acres; it’s going to need to be a partnership between the folks in favor of the dog park, landowners who may want to donate some of those things, and our part, I feel, should come in the support and maintenance of it. Where (to put it) is a really good question.”
Nielsen agreed.
“I don’t think we can put a number on a dog park for this budget,” she said. As for a potential location, she added, “The best we can do is say, ‘it’s something we will attempt to identify areas in our parks plan,’ and ask staff to keep an eye open for an opportunity.”
Heiar noted the council is scheduled to meet with the Parks and Recreation Board Dec. 3 to review the updated Parks Plan draft, which will likely include more talk on a dog park.
“So generally, I hear there is support for a dog park, and we should work with the dog park committee to start seriously looking for locations and get them to fundraise,” Heiar concluded.
Between now and Dec. 18, Heiar will meet with city department heads to hammer out details of their particular budget requests in preparation for the council’s next budget work session Jan. 12.