Photos by Jay Geisen
Where the sidewalk ends is, apparently, in West Branch.
At least for now. In the meantime, the seemingly innocuous issue of sidewalk improvement has become the most contentious issue in West Branch politics.
In December the West Branch city council voted against beginning construction on five new sidewalks, despite a $250,000 grant awarded to the city from the state’s Safe Routes to Schools initiative.
All it takes is a look at the grant’s target areas to see the necessity of the safety measures. A wide gravel road leads from Orange Street to the middle school, but there is no delineation between the areas reserved for pedestrians and those for vehicular traffic. A worn-down trail reminiscent of Frost’s road less travelled is the only pedestrian connection between the neighborhoods of Greenview Circle and Bickford Drive and the rest of West Branch. Poplar Street experiences a heavy traffic volume, particularly during school hours, but there is no sidewalk. According to residents, school children often walk on the automobile portion of the College Street Bridge.
So why did the city vote down the grant?
Jennie Embree, grant-writer for the sidewalks proposal, is as concerned about possible factors in the council’s opposition as with the vote itself, including the apparent snub of no-strings-attached money and the good ‘ol boys atmosphere of recent council meetings.
“To turn down money from the state, especially in an economy like this, makes no sense to me,” Embree said.
The issue is not dead yet: The city has until Jan. 1, 2013 to show proof of forward progress before it risks losing the grant money. Those who currently oppose the project cite the long time-frame and the need to research other options.
Just because the city’s been given the money, doesn’t mean it should take it, even for a worthwhile project, said Councilman Dan O’Nil, who voted “no” to moving ahead with the project.
“No one is against the sidewalks. We need the sidewalks, and it’s awesome that we got this money,” O’Neil said. “We aren’t saying to the state, ‘we don’t want your money.’ We’re saying that we need more information before we can make a decision.”
The real issue, according to O’Neil, is whether the city can afford the project if its costs exceed the $250,000 grant allotment. In a recent op-ed in the West Branch Times, O’Neil states that the city engineer estimates total costs will exceed the grant by as much as $140,000. In addition, before the city can seek bids, the council must approve spending $40,000 on an engineering firm to review the project.
“If money was no object every street in town would be perfect, but you have to live within your means,” O’Neil said. “I don’t want to do something that puts us behind or puts us into debt.”
Other municipalities in Iowa that have received grants from Safe Routes have completed their projects at or under budget, including Mechanicsville ($240,105); Dexter ($241,507); Marshalltown Community School District ($150,000); New London ($145,500); Howard County ($250,000); Perry ($169,588).
City Administrator Matt Muckler said he has been researching alternative options to the grant’s plan. One option, suggested by O’Neil, is to prioritize the routes and do them in stages. The city’s engineer estimated the city could complete the Poplar Street and middle school routes and the sidewalk from Orange Street to Crestview for $48,545. The proposal also includes repairs to the College Street Bridge.
If West Branch does indeed reject the funding it will become the latest governmental body to decline state or federal money to fund a local project. The governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey and city officials in Troy, Mich., all rejected federal stimulus funding for transportation-related projects in their jurisdictions last year, in what some call a trend toward Tea-Party ideals.
The council meetings held to discuss the sidewalks project have been tumultuous.
Embree said the meetings have been particularly unfriendly to women who come before the until-recently all-male council (Jordan Ellyson was recently seated as a new council member, but she has yet to say which side of the issue she falls on).
“If this proposal had been brought forth by a bunch of men who are part of the boys’ club—instead of young families who are new to West Branch—would the response have been more favorable? I don’t know.” Embree said. “You hate to think that this has something to do with it but you can’t help but wonder.”
During the Dec. 22 meeting, Councilman Mark Worrell told Councilman David Johnson, Embree’s husband and a supporter of the grant, to “shut up” when he spoke in favor of the project because he would no longer be on the council when the vote came up again.
“The fact that my wife was the person spearheading this effort may have tainted not only the council’s feeling on this matter but also the City Administrator’s. I have often found myself in the minority on council votes, and have made no bones about articulating to the public the errors the council has made,” Johnson said. “Suffice it to say, there was a lot of animosity in the city government towards me.”
O’Neil conceded that some meetings have gotten “out of hand” but that he doesn’t feel gender has played a role in the council’s decision.
“There have been instances where emotions have run high and things have been said that were uncalled for,” O’Neil said. “We’ve taken measures to ensure that those outbursts won’t happen again. We want our meetings to feel open and welcoming to men and women, regardless of their stance on an issue.”
On Jan. 20, the city council passed a revised “Council Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct.” One controversial proposed item, which was dropped from the final code for legal reasons, would have forbid recording devices at council meetings without prior permission.
Muckler said emotions have run high regarding this issue because residents wanted but did not receive immediate action from the council.
“Everyone wants kids to be able to travel safely to school,” Muckler said. “We’ve been working very hard for a very long time to try and make sure that this project is done the right way.”
Until a decision is made residents are hoping that December’s vote by the council is not just the latest in a series of road blocks that have been plaguing sidewalk improvement plans in West Branch for more than two decades.
“We have kids walking on a dirt path to get to school,” Embree said. “It’s crazy. It’s the epitome of poor planning.”