Van Buren making progress on sales tax projects

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Progress is being made on projects funded by a collection of sales taxes approved by Van Buren voters last year, though not all the progress can be seen by the naked eye.

According to Mayor Bob Freeman, the projects funded by the 1 cent sales tax are moving forward, with some projects expecting completion dates as soon as next year.

FIRE DEPARTMENT
The city's fourth fire station is under construction right now along Northridge Drive East, Freeman said, with an estimated completion date of May 2014.

The station, which cost $2.2 million to build, will house six firefighters and firefighting apparatus already purchased by the city, including a new pumper truck, he said. In addition to the six firefighters and pumper truck, Freeman said more staff and equipment is likely to arrive.

"The minimum is three (firefighters) per shift. We had hired six. That gives us our minimum. We want to hire three more in case someone's sick or whatever it may be. But right now we have our minimum staffing in place," he said, adding that the city had also submitted a grant application on Sept. 3 to the Assistance to Firefighters Assistance Program for a new ladder truck.

"The cost of the apparatus is $895,000. We are asking for the federal share of basically $650,000,” he explained.

Even though there is no word on when the grant could be approved, Freeman said the station will be ready to go with the city's current set of tools and equipment.

POLICE DEPARTMENT
Progress on the city's new police department has not been visible other than a sign in front of the empty lot where the new building will stand, identifying it as a project funded by the 2012 sales tax election. But that does not mean work has not been taking place on the sorely needed facility, which is budgeted to cost $3.3 million.

According to Freeman, there have been changes to the design of the department to allow room for growth in future years, something the city has not been able to do with its existing police department. The changes include utilizing space at the back of the lot previously occupied by a mower shop for an evidence room instead of housing it in the main structure of the police department.

"The primary reason for (housing it) there and not incorporating it into the main building is once built, we have to live with it for a major period of time without doing any construction. You're stuck with what you have. By putting it out in the other location, which is concrete reinforced, gives us capability now to have this new police station for the next 20 to 30 years as its built and the ability to expand it. Those costs will start to come in and I believe once they do, we'll be able to manage it."

With initial design work completed on the new facility, Freeman expects bids from subcontractors on the project to come in by January with a possible groundbreaking by February 2014.

SENIOR CENTER
The Senior Citizens Center, which was billed as the only project to be LEED-certified, is over its $2.8 million budget, with Freeman looking for ways to reduce the overage by $300,000 to $400,000.

"We got initial projections of cost on it," he said. "It was somewhat higher than we originally expected it to be. We are doing value engineering on it (in places) where we can make changes, not compromising size or quality."

As for where those funds will come from, the mayor said it would likely come from reserve funds the city had not spent from the current year's budget.

"We could take it out of the general fund because we are showing a surplus. We can take it out from this year, maybe next year and capital improvement funds," he said. "Once we get numbers in and get the city council approves it, we can break ground real soon."

PARKS AND RECREATION
The biggest unknown with the sales tax projects at this point is what will happen with the parks and recreation funding.

Already, projects at the tennis courts have been completed which added new lighting, landscaping and other amenities. The city has also completed new softball fields and added new restrooms and concessions at the Field of Dreams facility on the west side of town.

But other projects are still to be determined, such as what the city will do with land acquired for a new citizens park or land donated for a wilderness park in far northwest Van Buren. For that, the city is hiring an expert to help with the planning.

"After the first of the year, we'll advertise for help from a consultant to help us work on a parks master plan and that will, I envision look at parks throughout the city – parks in place and other pieces of property. What are the other places to need to fall into place? Not just in one year, but five years, 10 years, or 20 years? Here's what we want to do and now let's look at specifics."

Freeman said the process will "start looking at the big picture and zoom into smaller pictures."

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Even though a master plan is still far off, the city is working to add to its park infrastructure after signing a lease with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Lee Creek Park, which the city has partnered with Jobs Corps for cleanup and installation of picnic tables and possibly other amenities such as grills and fishing areas.

The mayor says while it may seem like the projects are taking a long time to get off the ground, he is a firm believer in making sure all projects are planned out and completed correctly instead of just jumping into projects without proper planning.

"I wish things would work faster and there wouldn't ever be a hiccup, but that's not how life is," he said. "I think planning and getting the right plan together is critical. Yeah, would I like to see the police station under construction now? Sure. But you have to put time into planning to make sure it's the right thing instead of just jumping at it and later saying I wish we would have done this."

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