Financial uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 crisis surfaced as a factor in what would have otherwise been a low-profile decision during the March 17 Edina City Council meeting.
The council ultimately voted 4-1 to approve a $331,000 purchase request for parking lot improvements at city hall, but not before the item came up for discussion in light of the pandemic that is disrupting life across the globe.
The proposal to improve accessibility in the parking lot and install electric vehicle charging stations was initially on the council’s consent agenda, meaning it was grouped with several other ostensibly uncontroversial measures to be voted on at once. However, in light of the crisis, Councilmember Ron Anderson pulled it off the consent agenda so it could be discussed.
“The project has merit,” Anderson said. But he continued, “It’s a significant expenditure, however. And my concern is that that expenditure is in a time of economic uncertainty.”
Ultimately, Anderson provided the lone dissenting vote, and the project is set to go forward. It will move handicapped stalls closer to the building’s access ramp, raise the crosswalk between the parking lot and city hall steps, improve sightlines for pedestrians and provide eight electric vehicle charging outlets, six of which will be for city vehicles.
Anderson requested that a decision on the project be delayed until the May 5 council meeting. “I think holding off a little bit to consider the whole landscape makes some sense,” Anderson said.
The rest of the council voted in favor of the project, however, due to timing and safety priorities.
The goal is to have the project completed by June 26, when absentee voting for the August primary is set to begin, attracting voters to city hall to cast their ballots early, City Engineer Chad Millner said.
“The timing of this is tricky,” City Manager Scott Neal added.
City Clerk Sharon Allison noted that absentee voting will bring more foot traffic to city hall. “We’ll have a lot of voters coming into city hall, and given the current crisis, depending on what the state decides to do, if the election is actually going to take place, they’re thinking that we will have a higher number of absentee voters,” she said.
In support of the expenditure, Millner also noted the project draws from city funds that have specific purposes anyway – Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety, Conservation and Sustainability, and Storm Sewer funds.
The restrictions on those funds, however, are self-imposed by the city. “If [the] council wanted to take another look at those, you could, and you could change them,” Neal said.
Councilmember Mike Fischer called Anderson’s consideration of the spending “a fair question,” but ultimately voted to fund the project.
“At the end of the day, this is a safety project. This is to make sure people can get in and out of our building safely and better (Americans with Disabilities Act) access,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a frivolous project. Here’s an important goal that we are trying to achieve.”
Councilmember Mary Brindle added, “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t proceed with the project now as planned. The funds are dedicated to it, and it is in a period of time where scheduling is important.”
Given the COVID-19 crisis, the city will have to give extra consideration to standards for discretionary spending, Mayor Jim Hovland observed. But he, too, cited safety priorities in his support for the project, believing “that we should move forward with this project and get it done.”
– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent