Council vote ends contentious fire station discussion

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Marcia Nelesen
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

JANESVILLE--After almost two tumultuous months of community discussion about the cost, location and fairness of pushing people out of their homes to make way for a new central fire station, the Janesville City Council on Monday voted 6 to 1 to accept a staff recommendation first outlined in closed session in November to build just north of the current location at 303 Milton Avenue.

Several of the owners of the 12 homes targeted have accused council members of already making up their minds by the time it became public in late February.

Councilman Matt Kealy was the sole “no” vote. He preferred to remodel the existing station.

The approved option allows firefighters to continue to work out of the current building. That building will then be demolished, as well.

Fire Chief Jim Jensen has said the current location on Milton Avenue results in the best overall response time for the community.

Several residents spoke, and Barry Badertscher, 2407 Cherokee Road, said the council should not “nickel and dime” the project, especially in light of the sacrifice residents who will be forced to move are making.

Janice Sperry, 911 S. Lexington Drive, suggested the city instead add on to an existing fire station to save the homes of the neighbors who pay property taxes.

Patrick McDonald, 435 Grove St., questioned the importance of the all-important four-minute response time, noting the response time to his home, nearby Craig High School and several elementary schools are all outside that four-minute zone.

He noted a site at the corner of Randall Avenue and Racine Street had long been discussed as optimal.

Council members Douglas Marklein and Jim Farrell even threw out two other locations at Monday's meeting. Councilman Sam Leibert noted the suggestions were coming a little late in the process.

Marklein suggested Upper Courthouse Park, which Jensen said was too small at 1.6 acres.

Farrell suggested Jefferson Park at Holmes Street and Atwood Avenue. The park in the Courthouse Hill neighborhood is large enough at 2.2 acres, but the location would add to response time, Jensen said.

Mark Freitag, city manager, said introducing a fire station into a neighborhood that has never had a fire station “would be a very emotional discussion and meet more resistance than the council anticipates at this point.”

Liebert said the council needed to make a decision Monday and be “decisive and bold. Tonight will be about tomorrow,” he said. He said he was OK with not getting elected if it means maintaining the best response times.

Marklein also asked the staff to set a $9 million budget for the building rather than $9.5 million. He was considering an $8 million budget, but decided it was too lean considering $1.5 million of that is earmarked for property acquisition and relocation of neighbors.

Liebert noted the city already has borrowed more than $1 million for the station, so it could make up any difference and still build a $9.5 million station.

Council President Kathy Voskuil suggested that two council members sit on the design team, and the rest of the council agreed.

Kealy warned that the council has many other projects looming, including increased road construction, the demolition of the parking structure over the river and possible plans to partner with private entities to improve the downtown.

“These are all things we're going to have to watch with our capital moving forward,” he said.

The council is already nearing a borrowing limit it set for itself, Jay Winzenz, director of administration, said.

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