• Veteran's Complex among issues discussed at 2019 State of the City Address

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    February 14, 2019

    Newly-elected Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele summarized the hard line stance he and his administrative team had in negotiating the future of the Veteran's Home Complex during the Young Professionals' third-annual State of the City Address on Thursday, February 14th, at Bosselman Corporate Headquarters.

    Steele and his team met with officials from the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, or DAS, shortly after being sworn into office in December. He said it was made clear in that first meeting what DAS intended to do with the Veteran's Home Complex after the residents moved out to their new facility in Kearney on January 15th: transfer the title of the buildings to the city of Grand Island, walk away and let the city alone deal with the existing structures.

    "My team and I said that was not a good idea," Steele said.

    Steele asked the DAS officials whether any state money would be forthcoming if the city took the buildings, and was told no money was coming. Steele said it would be a huge blow to the city's finances if it were left saddled with the campus, which has 280,000 square feet of buildings and costs about $1 million dollars annually to keep operational. That doesn't include the costs of cleaning the asbestos from some of the buildings, nor the high price of demolition, which was estimated at $4 million..

    Instead, Steele and team proposed a better way to handle the campus.

    "We pointed out to DAS that they signed an agreement with the Department of Veteran Affairs that requires DAS to identify and retain a management team for the property. They were supposed to finalize those details within 18 months after signing the agreement in July 2015. We discovered that they didn't finish that task, and my team and I insisted that DAS comply with the agreement. The DAS took federal money to build a new facility in Kearney, and if it were to be audited, it would reveal they didn't finish their deal in Grand Island," he said. "In our second meeting with DAS, we told them they must develop a plan for the buildings. They could not simply walk away from the agreement and make their buildings are problem."

    As a result, DAS officials agreed to work with the city on a redevelopment plan. Steele said he and his team will gather input of potential plans and request for proposals from potential developers by April 1st and have a contract signed by May 1. The redevelopment plan, Steele said, will be developed by October 1. 

    "That date was not selected at random, either," added Steele. "The DAS doesn't want to handle operating the building during another winter."

    For purpose of clarity, Grand Island owns the 640 acres of farm ground surrounding the campus, including the cemetary, which Steele said the city agreed as a way to honor and memorialize veterans. The State of Nebraska owns the 40 acres of campus land.

    Steele credited his team for its competency throughout the negotiations with DAS officials.

    "This was so important for Grand Island. It would have been a crushing financial burden for the city," he said. "My team and I decided that we could not let the State take their problem and make it our problem. We entered these negotiations confident, prepared and professional. You need to know that you have that high level of competency in your city government."

    Other community leaders that spoke during the event included Hall County Board of Supervisors' Jane Richardson, Central Community College Grand Island Campus President Dr. Marcie Kemnitz, and Northwest Public Schools Superintendent Matt Fisher.

    Richardson said the top issue facing Hall County is balancing the budget, which has been a difficult task over the last couple of years due to three barriers: flat or declining property taxes, increases in health insurance benefits and increases in salaries. Health insurance costs alone have increased 60 percent since 2016, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. To keep the budget balanced, Richardson said that the Board of Supervisors are cutting from department budgets, relying on the inheritance tax fund, and using creative ways to save money on healthcare coverage.

    "Everyone has tightened their belts, but the County has continued to prosper," she said.

    Kemnitz laid out some of Central Community College's current initiatives, including working with Grand Island officials to cultivate economic development.

    "We want to make sure our curriculum is relevant to meeting employers' needs. That's where you come into play," she said.

    Kemnitz said it is publicly known that Grand Island has a healthcare shortage, and that CCC is trying to address those concerns with the creation of the Center for Health and Technical Sciences on its campus. The college will also continue to grow its industrial training programs, and also place an emphasis on entrepreneurial development.

    Additionally, Kemnitz announced plans for the creation of a Multicultural Resource Center on campus. She said that Grand Island has the largest adult education program among CCC campuses, and many of those students speak English as a second language. There are students from 40 different countries that speak 30 different languages, she added.

    "We want all to feel welcome. The Multicultural Resource Center will create that inviting environment," Kemnitz said. "These adults are coming to us with professional backgrounds and we want to be able to make sure they have an understanding of the English language as well as our culture here in the United States."

    Fisher spoke on behalf of all the educational opportunities available in Grand Island, saying that there are great options for young students here. He said Grand Island is blessed because parents can choose the size or type of school, whether it be faith-based like Heartland Lutheran or a larger setting like Grand Island Public Schools. 

    Specifically regarding Northwest Public Schools, Fisher said it's in a unique situation because the location of the current high school doesn't reside within the schools' district. Also, of the 1,500 enrollees, roughly 1,000 are option students. 

    "We have a school district that is outside of Grand Island. But as the city grows and annexes property, it shrinks our district," Fisher said. "(The high number of option students) is a dynamic that I think Grand Island residents struggle with."

    Last year, Northwest had a middle school bond considered that was defeated. Fisher said Northwest was trying to identify how to improve the school's structure, stating that its middle school students don't receive the same opportunities as others in Grand Island. 

    "We have middle school kids in three different buildings, and it's difficult to put together programming that serves all of those students. We had hoped to bring them together in a new middle school. Now we have to move ahead and still figure out a way to serve those needs," Fisher said. "One option is to renovate on of our existing elementary schools into a middle school, or shrink our high school enrollment by putting a middle school inside our existing high school building. Those things are creating a lot of angst, but those options are being explored. It will take time to work through that."

    Michala Soundy, Vice President
    (308) 382-9210