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Old Cloquet Middle School, police overtime discussed

While the former Cloquet Middle School building on Carlton Avenue may feel forgotten since the new middle school opened across town last September, nothing could be further from the truth.

That's what Roers Investment Vice President Paul Keenan told City Councilors when he met with them during the June 19 work session.

Keenan updated the council on progress and plans for the building, which the Minnesota-based commercial and residential real estate development company wants to turn into a mix of 57 workforce and market-rate apartments. Roers bought the old school from the school district in December.

Keenan told the council that the company has completed its construction drawings for final historic approval, refined the site plan and completed extensive testing for lead and asbestos and has plans to remediate those. They would like to begin construction by the end of 2018, he said.

However, first the company must get the city's approval for a zoning change from "public institutional," like a school or hospital, to R3, the highest density residential district, which would also allow for office space within the building.

He is also requesting the city update the portion of its comprehensive plan dealing with that part of the city.

Keenan said he is hoping the members of the Cloquet Planning Commission will consider the requests at their July 10 meeting. If all goes well there, he is tentatively planning to bring the requests to the City Council on July 17.

The company is planning a community open house sometime between July 9 and 13, he said.

As proposed, the redevelopment would create nine mixed-income nine one-bedroom, 33 two-bedroom and 15 three-bedroom residential apartments in the old school. They would retain the historic auditorium, the gymnasium and the cafeteria space, although the cafeteria will be converted into a 10,000-square-foot office space. Roers is negotiating with the Cloquet School District to rent that office space for its administrative offices so the district can make more room at Garfield for students.

The swimming pool area would be demolished to make more space for parking. Keenan said there is space for 115 parking stalls in different areas outside the building.

The plans to reuse the building for apartments has met with some opposition, particularly when first proposed by Sherman Associates. Sherman canceled its purchase agreement in November 2016 when it failed to get historic approval in time for state funding. Roers entered the picture in early 2017.

Keenan worked for Sherman and now works for Roers. He has acted as point person on this project for both companies.

The former middle school has a long history in Cloquet. It has two wings, the first completed in 1921 — built originally as the high school after the 1918 fires — and 1938. The gym was built in 1936.

Keenan previously said Roers is expecting the rehabilitation of the building to cost close to $12 million. He said the company was one of 10 in the state — out of 50 applications — to receive $9 million in Minnesota housing tax credits. They also have other investors interested in the project.

Keenan said he expects construction to take about a year once things start moving.

The council did not take any action regarding the old school, as the meeting was simply informative. However, resident Dave Johnson did address the council regarding the old middle school later during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Johnson said he was representing a number of people in the neighborhood who oppose the conversion of CMS to apartments, citing problems with traffic and neighborhood impact.

Also during the work session, councilors and city staff met with the Library Board, discussions centered around a possible addition to the library. They went through a summary of the auditor's report and fund balance plan. And they canceled the July 3 City Council meeting.

Formal meeting

There were no public hearings during the formal Cloquet City Council meeting June 19.

In an unusual move, Ward 3 Cloquet City Councilor Roger Maki added an item — a budget discussion — to the formal Council agenda.

Specifically Maki wanted to know why the overtime costs were so high at the Cloquet Police Department.

According to year-to-date budget figures provided by Finance Director Nancy Klassen, through April 2018, regular police overtime was at 198 percent of the budget. The council budgeted $50,000 for the year, and regular overtime expenses by the end of April were at $49,645 instead of $16,667 as budgeted.

"Does this mean we're going to be looking at a 2019 budget (for overtime) of $200,000 instead of $50,000?" Maki asked, asking for an explanation as Police Chief Jeff Palmer was in the audience.

City Administrator Aaron Reeves offered reasons for the increase in regular overtime, noting that the department was down two officers for a time but two new officers were hired recently. Increased drug work has required more overtime, he said.

"We anticipate we will be fully staffed next year," Reeves said, adding that overtime should decrease when the department is fully staffed and noting the police department has a third police officer out of active duty for a different reason.

Reeves pointed out that the police department budget was only 4 percent over its $2.78 million budget at the end of April because salaries are not as high as expected, because of the vacant positions.

In 2016, total police regular overtime costs were $65,994 and in 2017 they were $77,729.

The council took the following actions June 19:

• Approved an assessment of the Lake Superior Waterline to look for leaks. The high-tech assessment of 5-6 historically troubled miles of the 24-mile waterline will cost the city approximately $113,000.

• Approved assessments for unpaid utility and property charges to go on residents' property taxes.

• Authorized the purchase of lift station parts for the $6.6 million water treatment plant the council approved earlier this month. When it's built, the plant will filter manganese from the city's Well No. 8.

• Mayor Dave Hallback proclaimed Aug. 24 as American Legion Day in the city of Cloquet.