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Citizens plan fight on new city hall

Posted: Thursday, Apr 8th, 2010

The new Alamosa City Hall complex as envisioned by designers.


election may occur


ALAMOSA — A group of Alamosa residents are taking on city hall.

In a move that surprised the Alamosa city council the night before the new city hall bid opening, the council on Wednesday learned that an ad hoc committee had filed a notice of intent to circulate referendum petitions to repeal the city hall financing ordinance. Approval of the financing ordinance was a necessary step in moving forward with the project to replace the existing city hall/library with a new building and upgrade the existing building to accommodate fire and police departments.

The city council opted to finance the new facility through Certificates of Participation, a type of lease-purchase measure that does not require a citizen vote.

According to the likely timeline set in motion by the notice of intent, if petitioners gather at least 191-192 valid signatures (10 percent of the total votes cast for the mayor in the last election) by next Friday, the city will have to schedule a special election for voter approval/denial of the city hall financing ordinance. The ordinance would be suspended and the city hall project on hold until voters made that decision.

On opposite sides of the issue, the ad hoc committee plans to meet Monday night, April 12, at 6 p.m. at the Inn of the Rio Grande in Alamosa to provide petitions to those willing to circulate them and the city council/staff plan to meet with the public in a town hall forum Monday at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at city hall.

In addition to petitions being circulated in the community, petitions will be available at Green Spot, a downtown Alamosa business that accumulated about 700 signatures of city and county residents objecting to the city hall complex as proposed.

Only city residents can sign the referendum petition. The petitions will be available next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Green Spot.

City Clerk Judy Egbert told the city council on Wednesday that former city councilor April Gonzales and city resident Mike Gibson had submitted the notice of intent to petition for repeal of the city hall financing ordinance. She explained that the referral process is a means by which citizens may challenge an ordinance council has passed.

“The first step that will happen if the petition is approved and deemed valid with the required number of signatures,” Egbert said, “you will be presented with the opportunity to repeal that ordinance.”

If the council does not repeal the ordinance, it will move forward with a special election within 60-150 days after the petition is deemed valid. That would be in late July or August, Egbert said.

She said although the city’s special election might dovetail with the Primary Election, it would not likely be possible to include the city ballot on the Primary Election ballot since the Primary is a partisan election.

Egbert estimated a special election would cost $20,000-30,000.

City council’s response to the latest development in the city hall project was surprise and concern.

Mayor Kathy Rogers said, “I hope the citizens truly understand what they are signing if they are approached to sign that ... If you put your name on that signature line, that is asking the city to go to a vote regarding this matter ... Signing this petition has such significant impact that people do not truly understand.”

She added that this type of citizen initiative is one of the freedoms of living in the United States, however.

Councilor Josef Lucero asked if it would be improper for the council to authorize staff to develop a position letter specifically dealing with the implications of repealing this ordinance and get it out to citizens “so the voters in our community truly understand the implications of delaying this project for even two months.”

He added he was astounded by the fact that 191 people could sign a petition to hold up a project like this.

“We have seven people here that are elected to do what the citizens in our community want us to do,” he said.

Councilor Charles Griego suggested the city hold another public hearing to get the word out about the implications of the ordinance repeal.

“We can’t just go door to door but we need to do something.”

City Manager Nathan Cherpeski said if the project is delayed, the city could spend several million dollars more for the project. The delay would also mean the city could not begin during this construction season, he said.

He added that the city has invested about $250,000 in this project, not counting staff time.

“Our constituents ought to know we are invested right now,” said Councilman Leland Romero.

Responding to the council and staff concerns about special election costs and the investment the city already has in this project, members of the ad hoc committee said that was a drop in the bucket compared to the $14 million the new facility will ultimately cost, as payments are spread over time, with interest.

The ad hoc committee members added that they are not completely against the city hall project, especially the library expansion, but they believed it needed more planning, more work on the financing and more citizen input.

They said the city council could have placed a question on last fall’s ballot without being forced into a special election this year.

“If this is such a good idea ... why were they afraid to take it to a vote?” asked Alamosa business owner Ruthie Brown.

Former planning commission member Robert Frederick said this project is reminiscent of the city recreation center that was defeated by voters but still pursued by the council through Certificates of Participation.

The ad hoc committee listed several concerns they and other community members have with the city hall project as currently proposed:

• timing, especially in light of the current economic situation and the fact many citizens are struggling financially.

• cost, the debt the city is taking on.

• the site and its effect on Cole Park and the Highway 160/Rio Grande bridge.

• placing all city buildings in one area rather than spreading them out in already-vacant buildings; also the safety risks of not having a fire station on the south side of the railroad tracks.

• the situation with the river levee and upgrades/improvements that will be required by revised national levee standards, the cost of that levee work and the consequences of not bringing the levee up to standard including potential safety risks to citizens and flood insurance being required for homeowners.

• lack of a public vote.

“The people should be allowed to vote on a $14 million project,” Gonzales said. “Let people choose. Give us a chance to choose.”

Regarding the need to improve the existing city hall, Gonzales and other members of the ad hoc committee said the city has about $1 million on hand that could be used to make the city hall compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, for example, or expand the library.

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