Referendum recommended for Government Center
The Portage County Executive/Operations Committee recommended the issue of whether to construct a $78.5 million Government Center go to residents.
Committee members voted unanimously Wednesday, Aug. 3, to recommend to the County Board that the question go to an advisory referendum. The County Board of Supervisors will vote on the recommendation at its Tuesday, Aug. 16, meeting.
“I’ve had people from both sides of the (County Board) vote ask me to present it to the board,” Committee and County Board Chair Phil Idsvoog said. “I’ve had a town chairman ask me, and I’ve had numerous citizens give me a call. If a majority of the board feels so strongly they want one, they can vote that way.”
The County Board June 21 approved 15-8 moving forward with the concept of building the new Government Center. The $78.5 million plan entails constructing a three-story, 270,000-square-foot building attached to the County Annex containing, in part, a jail to house a maximum of 200 prisoners, with room to grow if needed, and four new courts.
Also included in the plan is demolition of the 1039 Ellis St. building. Repurposing the existing County-City Building in some way is on the list, but with a “to be determined” cost. It is not known whether repurposing the building would remain on the list; County Executive Patty Dreier has included funds in the 2017-22 Capital Improvements Plan to remodel and repair the building.
Much of the 20-minute Executive Committee meeting was spent on how to word the referendum question and how to educate the public about the issue should the County Board approve it.
The referendum would be a nonbinding or advisory referendum, which means results will not hold the County Board to any direction or decision about the new building, rather it will only provide a gauge on whether community members think the Government Center should be constructed.
The proposed language for the question is: “Shall Portage County construct a new three-story Portage County Government Center with new court and law enforcement and jail facilities in downtown Stevens Point adjacent to the existing Portage County Government Annex at a capital cost not to exceed $78.5 million?”
Answer options are just as simple:
“A ‘Yes’ vote means that you are in favor of constructing a new three-story Portage County Government Center with new court and law enforcement and jail facilities in downtown Stevens Point adjacent to the existing Portage County Government Annex at a capital cost not to exceed $78.5 million.”
“A ‘No’ vote means you do not favor building a new Portage County Government Center as set forth in the referendum question.”
“I think it’s a good idea (to go to referendum),” Committee member Jim Gifford said. “I think this is so big and so important we need to do it.”
Dreier questioned why the answers could not explain the need for the building, specifically the safety concerns in the existing County-City Building. Corporate Counsel Michael McKenna said many discussions with legal advisers indicate referendum questions should be straight-forward.
“The law is rather than adding lots of explanation and adding whys, it’s `should it yes’ or ‘should it no’,” he said. “Those are political arguments for yay or nay.”
Committee members agreed.
“We want to keep it simple, not justify it,” Jim Zdroik said.
Reasons why should be left to the education component, committee member Allen Haga said.
“It’s important that we get all the facts out, and everyone gets a clear idea of what the issue and needs are,” he said. “Then they have all of the information to make a decision whether it’s justified or not.
“It’s August already,” he said. “I would encourage whoever’s responsibility that is to move forward quickly.”
Previous referenda included public information sessions, Gifford said, and he didn’t see any reason why this time would be any different.
If the proposed referendum question stands and the public votes it down, determining why residents said “no” could be difficult based on County Board Supervisors’ June 21 vote. One supervisor, for example, voted against the concept in part because it ties up money for other capital improvement projects, another voted against it because of the location, still another because of the size.