Passage of fire tax one of Cape's successes

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Broken-down firetrucks. A shorthanded police department. And not enough tax dollars to correct the problems.

That's what the Cape Girardeau City Council faced only days into the start of 2004.

Facing a growing public safety crisis, the council ended up convincing voters in June to pass a quarter-cent fire sales tax.

It was one of the major successes in the city this year. As the year winds to a close, city officials were ready to spend the new tax dollars -- an estimated $2 million annually over the next 10 years -- on items including a new fire station and more police officers.

And the council isn't done with tax issues yet. The city council plans to ask voters in August to extend the half-cent transportation sales tax for another five years -- the third such road tax issue since voters first approved the city tax in August 1995.

The city council in January will take its first look at what would be funded with the latest tax measure, expected to generate $20.3 million over the next five years.

The Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended nine road projects, in addition to paving existing streets and building and repairing sidewalks. The projects include widening sections of Mount Auburn Road and Bloomfield Road, and construction of a new road from Interstate 55 to Route W.

City officials emphasize the similarity between the transportation tax and the fire sales tax: Both involve trust funds, guaranteeing that the money will be spent as promised.

Another $1 million

Another major money issue on the council's agenda early next year is approving a plan to spend $1 million in surplus motel and restaurant tax money on tourism projects.

The Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau advisory board and the local chamber of commerce, which manages the bureau under a contract with the city, are expected to make spending recommendations to the council.

In October, the visitors bureau board drew up a list of possible projects, including downtown public restrooms and tourism billboards.

But for city officials, passage of the fire sales tax was the paramount goal.

The tax passed with nearly 81 percent support. Voters approved the tax by a vote of 4,130 to 991. On election night, Mayor Jay Knudtson called it "unbelievable."

The council initially wanted to put the issue before voters in April, but decided to wait until June and first look to trim city expenses.

Looking back, Knudtson said, the council had no choice but to push ahead with the tax measure.

"We couldn't budget our way out of the issue we were in," he said.

The council spent much of the winter mapping out $500,000 in cost-cutting moves, fund transfers and service fee increases to help the city's beleaguered general fund. The city made cuts in municipal band concerts and spring cleanup, both of which drew some complaints.

"We cut in virtually every area that we could," the mayor recalled.

If voters hadn't approved the fire sales tax, Knudtson said the city's public safety crisis would have forced the council to make deeper spending cuts.

The tax money will fund pay raises for police and firefighters, hire three more firefighters, buy police cars, firetrucks and other public safety equipment, construct a new fire station to replace an aging one, renovate the police station and the main fire station, and replace roofs on two other fire stations.

Aided by the new fire tax, the city council late in the year approved a new pay plan that boosted pay for city employees -- 13.4 percent pay raises on average for police officers and firefighters, and 7.8 percent pay raises on average for all other city employees.

The pay raises were vital to hiring and retaining police officers, the mayor said. The city, which had been unable to fill four police officer positions, recently received 75 applications, Knudtson said.

"The quality of those applicants is the direct result of our ability to pay these guys," he said. "That is the tangible result of the fire sales tax."

Building and rebuilding

The year saw other accomplishments in a city where construction was a major topic of conversation for everyone from civic leaders to the public.

The historic Marquette Hotel on Broadway was renovated and opened as a state office building. Construction work began on the new $50 million federal courthouse west of city hall, and a Chicago artist finished painting colorful floodwall murals depicting the town's history.

The murals will be dedicated in the spring. Between now and then, the local mural association hopes to proceed with construction of a sidewalk and reader boards in front of the murals on Water Street. The reader boards will explain the events depicted in the murals.

The city planned for the widening of another section of Broadway while the Missouri Department of Transportation spent $1 million improving busy William Street between Siemers Drive and Mount Auburn Road. The project, much of it done at night to limit traffic disruption, included road-widening work as well as the installation of traffic lights at the intersection of William Street and Farrar Drive.

Downtown merchants and city officials discussed plans for an extension of Fountain Street as well as changes to Water and Main streets.

The city council in June approved developers' plans for construction of 16 luxury townhouses on vacant ground in downtown Cape Girardeau. The site at 210 N. Spanish St. is north of where Spanish Street comes to a dead end just north of Broadway. The project is expected to cost more than $4 million.

But perhaps no project drew as much public attention as the demolition of the 76-year-old Mississippi River bridge, a $2.23 million job whose series of thunderous explosions in August and September drew repeated crowds to the Cape Girardeau riverfront and forced the precautionary evacuation of some downtown homes and apartments. People brought video and still cameras to document the bridge's end.

A major blast in September did more damage than expected, leaving wreckage strewn across the river like the backdrop of a disaster movie.

The blast dropped a 671-foot-long section of the main span into the river, but also sparked a chain reaction that damaged the other remaining spans of the bridge.

"We have been approving and witnessing bridge demolitions for 25 years, and I have never seen anything like that," Roger Wiebusch, bridge administrator for the U.S. Coast Guard in St. Louis, said after the blast.

High water on the Mississippi River late in the year delayed some underwater demolition on the remnants of the old bridge piers. The final demolition work will continue into next year, MoDOT area engineer Stan Johnson said.

End of Indians

Southeast Missouri State University's debate over plans to scrap its Indian nicknames was another explosive issue.

In June, the university's regents -- after months of discussion and at the urging of a campus committee -- adopted Redhawks as the new nickname for the school's sports teams. This month the university began selling merchandise with the new bird logo. On Jan. 22, a new costumed mascot will be introduced.

School officials said they made the change to avoid offending American Indians and to better market the school's sports teams.

It was also a year that saw continued planning for the university's proposed River Campus arts school. Construction is expected to get underway in 2005, seven years after building plans were first announced to transform a former Catholic seminary overlooking the Mississippi River into a visual and performing arts campus.

Along the way, the project was beset by both state funding problems and repeated litigation by businessman Jim Drury over the city's financial involvement. An out-of-court settlement a year ago this month between the Cape Girardeau City Council and the Drury cleared the way for the project to proceed.

In 2004, the university settled on final plans for the more than $40 million construction project. It will include renovations to the historic brick seminary building, a section of which dates back to 1843. Included in the new construction will be a performance hall, an art and regional history museum, and a state-affiliated welcome center.

The project should be completed by August 2007, school officials said.

A familiar Cape Girardeau landmark, the post office at 320 Frederick St. closed because of structural problems with the leased building's roof.

In March, the U.S. Postal Service moved its retail operation to a storefront at 284 Christine St. This month, postal workers were still operating out of the temporary quarters, and mail carriers were operating out another temporary location, a commercial building at 905 Enterprise St.

Postmaster Mike Keefe said repairs still need to be made to the old post office building on Frederick Street. As of late this year, the postal service was still negotiating with the building's owner over needed repairs, and no final decision had been made on whether the agency would return to that building.

If it does reopen, it won't happen until next summer, Keefe predicted. Even then, the postal service still may decide to operate a second retail office in a more centrally located part of the city, he said.

Law and order

The year began with a fatal shooting at the Taste, an after-hours club on Good Hope Street. A 25-year-old Cape Girardeau man was killed.

Angry neighbors said the club attracted drunken patrons who often disturbed the peace and sparked violence. They urged the club be shut down.

In the end, club owner Patrick Buck decided to close the business rather than get into what he termed "a long, drawn-out fight" with neighbors.

Sparked by the problems at the Taste, the city council imposed a temporary moratorium on after-hours clubs and later made the ban permanent.

The city council also tackled pet issues, placing a limit on household pets that a person can own at four dogs and four cats. A special-use permit is needed to own more.

The move was designed to make it easier for police and animal-control officers to address nuisance complaints about dogs and cats.

Some pet owners criticized the move, saying it's irresponsible pet owners, not the number of animals, that cause the nuisance problem. Council members defended the limit.

Still, as the new year rolls around, pet issues remain under discussion by a new animal-control task force that is reviewing further revisions to city regulations.

The year ended with two vacancies on the city council. Both Ward 3 Councilman Jay Purcell and Ward 4 Councilman Hugh White resigned.

White, who had been working as a real estate agent, resigned in October. He said in a letter that new business responsibilities would keep him out of town more and prevent him from attending council meetings.

Purcell recently resigned because he was elected in November as a county commissioner. He will take office Jan. 1.

The city will hold a special election in April to fill the two seats. If a primary is necessary in either of the wards, a general election in that ward or wards could be delayed until June.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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