WILLMAR — It didn't seem like any member of the Willmar City Council was happy when casting a vote Monday night for the final approval of the four-season shelter project at Robbins Island, especially because of the final cost — $1,085,150. But, vote they did, with five of them voting yes.
"This is obviously coming in higher than we thought this project would cost," said Councilor Shawn Mueske, adding he was feeling some sticker shock.
Two resolutions tied to the shelter were voted on, both passing on a 5-2 vote. Voting in favor were Councilors Mueske, Julie Asmus, Rick Fagerlie, Fernando Alvarado and Audrey Nelsen. The first resolution was to reallocate $246,000 to the shelter project from other sources. The second approved the low bid for the project, including adding polished concrete floors, air-conditioning and spray foam insulation to the building.
"I think we have done our due diligence. It is not comfortable that it is more money, but I think it's the right thing to do," Nelsen said.
Casting the negative votes were Councilors Vicki Davis and Kathy Schwantes. Councilor Andrew Plowman was absent.
"I cannot honestly look my constituents in the eye and justify a $1 million building," Schwantes said. "I can't support this project."
While the total cost of the shelter is into seven figures, the city is paying for less than half of it. A Legacy Grant through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is paying for $606,000 of it. The grant was awarded for the shelter project in late 2015. To keep the grant funds, the city needs to complete the project by June 2020, so time is short.
"It is a lot of money, but we do have a grant," Fagerlie said. "If you are going to do a building at a regional park, you should probably do it right the first time."
The funding reallocations for the city's share of the project are $170,000 from a proposed amphitheater at Robbins Island and $76,000 in excess funds following a purchase of Public Works mowers.
The remaining costs in the shelter budget are $90,000 for engineering and $70,000 for contingency.
The costs of the shelter concerned the council. Asmus said while she was unhappy with the project costs, she better understands why after speaking with local contractors. The contractors told her that public buildings such as a park shelter have to use commercial-grade fixtures and systems, as well as pay the prevailing wage to workers, all which add to the costs. It is not the same as building a $1 million private home.
"That made sense to me," Asmus said.
Beyond the high costs of the project, there were also concerns about how the project was planned and executed, especially since the grant was awarded more than three years ago.
"We did not start working on this project until last year. We lost a lot of ground," Nelsen said. "We should have been working on that as soon as it was awarded."
Mayor Marv Calvin said the three years the council waited on this project might have added an additional 30 percent to the cost, if construction costs go up 10 percent a year. Instead of the council getting too far into the minutia of the project, it should have let staff take the lead, with council giving approvals when required, he said.
"These are staff projects. This should have been 100 percent turned over to staff," Calvin said, adding the city needs to learn from this, especially going forward with the local option sales tax projects. "We have to empower our staff, the people we hire to make decisions and allow them to make those decisions."
With the plan and the money in place, it is hoped work on the shelter will begin soon. The contractor awarded the project was Ram Buildings Inc., of Winsted.
"They are ready to start right after Labor Day," said Richard Engan, of Engan Associates, the architect for the project. "The intention is to get the basic building done this fall."