The heat was turned up inside the Medford Fire Hall as members of the current city council and those who had been newly elected came head to head for the first time.
With the clock ticking on the drawn out Main Street reconstruction project, the Medford City Council held a special meeting Tuesday to take action on the project. Despite a sense of urgency, however, the council elected to allow the process to expire and start over in January, leaving the newly elected council to make the final decisions. The motion was passed in a 4-1 vote with Mayor Lois Nelson opposing.
Come January, Nelson and Councilors Marie Sexton and Matt Dempsey will be leaving the council. Sexton did not file for re-election and Dempsey was defeated by Mandy Mueller and Chad Merritt to fill one of the two open council seats. Danny Thomas, a former mayor of Medford, defeated Nelson in her mayoral bid for re-election.
Nelson has been adamantly pushing the council to order the improvement and preparation of the plans for the estimated $2.1 million project since the spring. She said during the special meeting that moving forward on this project was necessary due to historically low interest rates for capital improvement projects. City Administrator Andy Welti echoed Nelson’s sentiments, adding that another city recently secured funding for a project with a 0.9% interest rate.
“The biggest factor in all of this is COVID-19 – it has changed the discussion due to the financial impact the project will have on families,” Welti said. “Interest rates are never this low, making it the most opportune time as it is cost effective and will save money, but at the same time we are at a place where the community is already impacted by COVID-19.”
With restarting the clock on the process, the new council will have to set a new public hearing date for the proposed improvement project, which includes a 10-day mailed notice and two-week published notice prior to the hearing. While some may feel the council is setting the project back to square one, the city engineer contracted through Bolton and Menk confirmed that will not be the case as certain engineering processes and reports have already been completed and paid for.
Thomas, Mueller and Merritt were all in attendance for the special meeting and called upon by Councilor Grace Bartlett to provide feedback on the direction they would like to see the council take on Tuesday. All three of the newly elected officials agreed it made the most sense to allow the process to expire and start again in January.
Thomas made a statement in October that it was unknown if the city would continue with the engineering firm after the election, but he said on Tuesday that it will continue with the firm on the process.
“We have come this far and we need to see it through with them,” Thomas said. “Don’t vote no, let it expire and we will restart this process right away.”
The three soon-to-be council members also unanimously agreed that no one wants to start completely over with the project and that both the road and the water main need to be addressed.
Updates and changes to the potential project have been ongoing, focusing on the need to replace a water main that was installed in the 1950s and has had more than eight breaks. Joe Duncan with Bolton and Menk has made adjustments to the project over the summer and fall that has brought the estimated cost down nearly $600,000 from the initial price-tag.
Because the road is a county-state-aid highway, the county will be covering 75% of the cost on all state-aid eligible items, with the remaining cost falling on the city. County Engineer Greg Ilkka, who was also in attendance for the special meeting Tuesday, said there will be no impact to the county’s participation by restarting the process.
The meeting began with Nelson lecturing Thomas, with Sexton calling out the elephant in the room when she addressed the animosity.
“The discord and hate in this room, I see it coming from both sides, and it’s bothering me a lot,” said the nearly 25-year veteran of the city council. “There is no reason for it if you would simply just talk to one another. We all want to see this project done. We all want to do it and we all want to do it right.”