Budget woes force Duluth to cut parking deck

This year's abrupt and stinging rise of prices for goods and services nationwide has trickled down to Duluth, where the city is planning a new City Hall.

At a special session Wednesday, the City Council slashed $1.2 million from the $12.5 million budget, thereby eliminating the building's underground parking deck. The vote was unanimous.

The action came after Dave Heydinger, president of Mathias Corp., told the panel that the first place to look for cuts is the parking lot.

"This is clearly the most expensive to build, and this is not a big site. We're putting a lot of building on this site," he said.

Council member Marsha Bomar said she strongly favored the budget cut.

"It's foolish to spend money when there are others areas downtown that could be used," she said.

Heydinger's firm specializes in general construction, design and building, development assistance and construction management.

When Mayor Pro Tem Douglas Mundrick asked if construction could be under way by August as originally planned, Heydinger painted a somewhat bleak picture.

"There are so many things to be decided yet," he said. "This is the fastest growth in construction costs I've ever experienced in my career. In some things, prices are changing faster that I expected."

The cost of fuel is causing delivery and production prices to rise significantly and has triggered the high, and sometimes unmanageable, costs of many operations.

Police face money issues

The council gave the nod to the spending of $5,460 from the Police Federal Asset Forfeiture Fund to buy communications equipment for the department.

In an interview earlier this week, Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher said the equipment is absolutely necessary in the newly built Duluth Public Safety Center on Buford Highway. The problem is in the bottom basement, he said.

"There's so much steel and concrete: Our radios don't work at all," he said.

"Now if the officers are downstairs and anything happens, the dispatchers can't get to them at all," Belcher said.

In an even more critical matter for Duluth's law enforcement, seasoned and trained officers are leaving for nearby cities that pay their police more and offer amenities like letting those employees take patrol cars home, no matter their place of residence.

In Duluth, the officers must live inside the city limits for that privilege.

But even more significant is the disparity in starting salaries.

Sandy Springs and Alpharetta now offer starting pay of $47,000 a year compared to Duluth, whose starting salary beginning July 1 will be $34,500.

As a result the department is trying to fill five vacancies, Belcher said.

"Two other officers already have been recruited by Sandy Springs and four more are looking to go elsewhere," he said.

Should those jobs become vacant, the department's contingent of 54 sworn officers would be reduced to 43.

"Eleven out of our number is a pretty big chunk," Belcher said.

Also, he noted, in July, a referendum for voters in St. John's Creek and Milton will determine whether those two areas will become cities.

"Should it pass, that would mean two more nearby police forces competing for officers," the chief said.

A major crisis, such as the Brian Nichols manhunt or the search for Jennifer Wilbanks last year, would force Duluth to call on other agencies quickly, Belcher said.