Moving out?

The City Council has been discussing building a new Safety Center to replace the 1970 building at Fifth Street and Hwy. 3 for nearly five years. (News file photo)

Erica Zweifel says she isn't put off by a letter from attorney David Ludescher finding that the city's Housing & Redevelopment Authority can't legally finance a new city Safety Center.

The city councilor says she wants to proceed with the project while pursuing an opinion from the city's attorney.

Earlier this month it was Zweifel who advocated for financing the Safety Center using bonds that don't require voter approval. In an empassioned speech, she said it was time to move the Police Department from the undersize, aging space on Fifth Street.

The council, she said Friday, has responded to residents' calls to reduce the scope and cost of the project, but that now it's time to act.

The letter, which Ludescher, a candidate for City Council who has advocated putting the Safety Center financing plan before the voters, says state law doesn't permit the HRA to finance and lease the project because it's unrelated to housing.

The letter was addressed to Joanne Sommers who declined to comment on this story. Ludescher won't name his clients — members of the Northfield Citizen's Safety Task Force.

The council on June 5 approved a financing plan for the new Safety Center which would have either the HRA or Economic Development Authority finance the project. The city, which is soon expected to close on property for the new police station, would lease to own the new building.

An attorney general's opinion, according to Ludescher, says that while cities can enter into leases, those which extend beyond a year require a bond referendum and voter approval.

Information from the League of Minnesota Cities suggests lease-finance projects of this type are acceptable and don't need voter input.

Ludescher acknowledges that similar projects have been completed across the state without question. Northfield entered into a similar arrangement when the EDA financed the outdoor pool and leased it back to the city without getting voter authorization.

On Tuesday the council is expected to approve several motions related to the Safety Center financing, which Ludescher last week says it can't legally do.

"It puts us at risk for a lawsuit," he said, adding that he hopes the HRA puts the brakes on its proposed involvement in the project.

The HRA is expected to consider its role in the project July 12.

Zweifel, who also sits on the HRA, says she's gotten an overwhelmingly positive response from her June 5 vote. 

"I've been contacted by vastly more people who say 'Thank you for getting this done," she said.

*  *  *  *

This story has been modified to note that Councilor Erica Zweifel sits on the HRA.

-Reach Suzanne Rook at 645-1113. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy.

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