Alta Council: crossing upgrades, pool, vacant buildings

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Alta City Council addressed a number of issues during a meeting by conference call this week, including upgrades for a railroad crossing, handling of the city pool, and the prospects for taking over a vacant Main Street building.

RAILROAD CROSSINGS

The railroad crossing at Lake Street has been a matter of contention for years.

In 2014, the city campaigned hard to get crossing arms on Main Street and Lake Street for public safety. An application for a grant for the Lake crossing was denied based on arguments that a semi stopped at the crossing could block traffic on the highway, and the proximity of a fire station. Three weeks ago, the city was notified of a change of heart from the railroad, which is now willing to work on a grant.

In 2016, the city tried to pursue a grant for surface improvements for the crossings but was denied by the Department of Transportation. After a discussion last November, the DOT now seems interested in working with the city on the project. City officials theorize that turnover in key staff for both the railroad and DOT has been responsible for the change in outlook.

Ag Partners is willing to work with the city for a portion of the matching funds for crossing surface repairs. That project could move forward within one to two years, costing the city perhaps $7,000. The city’s portion of a crossing arms project is estimated at $25,000, but that project could be four or five years down the road.

Mayor Kevin Walsh said he felt it was a “no brainer” to move ahead with the grant process on both projects, and the council agreed.

CITY POOL

The city streets department plans to drain the pool in the City Park and refill it with fresh water, in hopes that the quarantine will be lifted and the pool may be open sometime during the summer.

The city had concerns that if the pool were not drained, moss could grow on the walls, and if it were left empty, the basin could crack. Enough chlorine will be added to the water to keep algae from growing while the pool is closed.

The park playgrounds and basketball court have been closed per the governor’s quarantine orders.

NUISANCE BUILDING

The council continues to work on a nuisance building case for a vacant business building on Main Street. The city’s attorney has advised that the city could claim the property or have it demolished for lack of response from an owner. The mayor and council member Wes Bunjes investigated the building recently and found that it is in bad shape, with some areas of ceiling falling in, plaster coming off and evidence of black mold.

“Saying all that, we do not want another empty lot on Main Street,” Walsh said. “We need to think about what we want to do for our community.” Either trying to reclaim the building or tearing it down would be better than letting it slowly rot away, he said.

Walsh and Bunjes agreed that the exterior structure is sound, and with a gutting of the interior, it could be make useable. But for the city to do such repairs and try to use the building as a rental property would involve a lot of up-front costs.

Former mayor Al Clark told the council that previously, one individual had expressed interest in the location, to possibly develop a microbrewery-type business with an apartment above, if the building could be had at an affordable price.

City officials hope to check on whether the potential developer would still be interested.

The city continues to work on other nuisance properties - still waiting for an owner of a dilapidated church to remove that structure this spring or summer as promised, and for repairs or demolition to be made on two problem home properties.

The first reading of a new ordinance on abandoned properties was passed. Three readings are necessary for final approval.

LIQUOR STORE PROJECT

The city has fielded an application for a liquor license and tobacco permit for a possible liquor store development - Eddy’s Liquor - in the former Rebounds location. The proposed development would include a beer cooler, snacks, soft drinks, and tobacco products behind the counter. Council members wondered if such a development would hurt other existing businesses. One current business owner has questioned whether the city needs three stores selling liquor.

LAKE CREEK WATER

The council agreed to a change in water billing for Lake Creek. The city traditionally charged a 10 percent surcharge to supply water to homes there. After the area’s meter stopped working, and proved problematic to replace, the city had been charging 125 percent of its own residential rate based on records of use in the past. There has been some concern that the bills had been getting high, so the council agreed to charge 125 percent based on indications of use from current sewer use, as had been requested from Lake Creek. While city officials felt the change would help Lake Creek more than the city treasury, the mayor said he felt the change in policy is reasonable.

MOBILITY CARTS

The council continued discussion of use of electric mobility carts on the city streets, after a request recently from a disabled resident.

While some of the mobility devices look like golf carts, they do not qualify as those vehicles. People who use the devices may not have driver’s licenses. The city clerk said there are few ordinances in use in Iowa for such issues, and drew one up based on Iowa City regulation.

The council, however, is leaning toward a policy rather than enacting a new ordinance, and directed the clerk to bring a potential policy to them at its next meeting, in hopes of getting something in place for the summer.

A policy would need to specify the person who could legally operate the mobility cart on the streets, and specify that they have liability insurance in case the cart were involved in an accident, the council felt.

“I would love to see us help out our people in town with mobility issues,” the mayor said.

In other city business:

• The Library director said the role of the library remains in question during quarantine. The Alta-Aurelia school board had planned to lock down the school building - where the community library is located - this week. The director was waiting to hear from the library board on future direction.

• Council members expressed concern that during a recent controlled burn, three members of the fire department were sitting together on a fire truck, and not following social distancing guidelines. City officials said it is important to keep their firefighters healthy, and planned to address the situation with the department.

• Hiring of two summer employees for the streets department was approved. The help is important because many dead and dying ash trees will need to be removed. Bids for a snowplow truck were opened, with results about as the streets department had anticipated. A decision on a purchase will be made at an upcoming meeting.

• The city responded to a request for a donation for the 2020 Buena Vista County Fair with a $250 allotment.

• Mayor Walsh noted that he has fielded 100 plus emails on COVID-19 concerns. Some people have not understood the need for closing bars and restaurants in Alta, he said.