LAWRENCE — Mayor Daniel Rivera warned City Council members Tuesday night that if they don't approve his request for $3.75 million to fix the Museum Square parking garage, he might have to shut it down.
"I'm coming to you with a plan to fix it so people can park in there every day," Rivera said during a rare appearance before the council. "If you don't want to spend the money, that's fine. We'll just shutter it."
Rivera and the council have been locked in a political dogfight for months over who should pay to fix the garage and how much they should pay.
Some councilors want the mayor to reopen negotiations on the 1987 contract signed between the city and the owners of the Museum Square apartments about use of the garage. They say the owners of the apartment complex should help pay for the repairs, since they collect money from their tenants to park there.
Rivera says that he is willing to talk about that but in the meantime, because the building is owned by the city, the city has to fix it.
Rivera said the deal signed by Jackson Street Housing Associates, owners of the apartment complex, and the city is pretty much iron-clad. Under the deal, the apartment dwellers have exclusive access to 276 of the 412 spaces in the garage. The rest are used by people going to the courthouse across the street or by people shopping in the area.
The tenants pay a fee to the company that owns the apartment complex. One tenant of the apartments told The Eagle-Tribune that normally, he would be charged $50 a month but that recently, the parking fee has been waived.
Visitors pay, too, with the money going to the city. Rivera said the parking garage makes a significant amount of money for the city.
The contract between the two parties also requires that the city pay for maintenance of the building, something that has been neglected over the years.
"It's a garage we got from the state," Rivera said. "We didn't pay for it, but we didn't take care of it, either."
He noted, "We will have to shut this building down if the snow falls and we haven't fixed it yet."
However, he noted, if it is shut down, it's highly likely the city would be sued by the apartment complex owners and/or their tenants and be forced to fix it and reopen it.
"The court will make us," he said.
Earlier this year, Rivera proposed borrowing $4 million to fix the garage, but that proposal was shot down by the council in a close vote.
He returned with another request to borrow $3.75 million. The Budget and Finance Committee met earlier this month for a hearing on the $3.75 million request but couldn't come to an agreement, sending the proposal to the full council with no recommendation.
Two of the three councilors on the budget committee — David Abdoo and Marc Laplante — are in favor of paying for the repairs. The third — Pavel Payano — is on the fence.
The full council took some testimony from the public Tuesday night and asked the mayor a few questions. The council then voted to hold a full public hearing about the garage funding request Aug. 22, at which point more testimony will be heard and, possibly, a vote taken.
Rivera said the city is running out of time, as temporary repairs to the structure that were made in June are only supposed to last for 90 days, or until Sept. 12. If the city hasn't at least started on the repair project by then, the building will be shut down and the tenants of the Museum Square apartments would be forced to find another place to park.
Some councilors, however, remain convinced that it's possible to get the owners of the apartments to pony up some money for repairs.
Councilor Payano said he had heard from residents of Museum Square that the company "wants to contribute" toward fixing the garage.
Rivera said in his conversations with the owners, however, "they feel the responsibility to fix it is the city's."
Jeovanny Rodriguez, vice president of the council, read an excerpt from the original contract between the city and the owners of the apartments that said the owners were responsible for making payments to the city.
The contract states that once the apartment complex starts making a profit, the company would pay a growing share of parking receipts to the city, eventually paying 100 percent of the fees directly to the city.
That has never happened because the company claims it has never made a profit, Rivera said.
Rodriguez insisted that based on the contract, the owner of the apartment complex is on the hook for "100 percent of the money collected from the tenants monthly."
Rivera, in a testy exchange, countered that Rodriguez doesn't have the expertise to interpret the contract.
"I'm not an attorney and neither are you," he said. "It's a legal document."
He added, "I'm embarrassed. I know you're trying to get someone else to foot the bill but we can't count on that ... or ... we could shut it down."
Payano pressed the mayor on whether he has spoken to the owners of the apartment complex about reopening the contract or anything else, for that matter.
"Did you engage in conversation?" he asked.
"We engaged, but it was not fruitful," said the mayor, choosing his words carefully while standing at the podium.
Payano asked about the true cost of repairs and whether the $3.75 million would grow into a larger amount once engineers took a closer look at the building.
Rivera said that was quite possible.
"This is years of neglect," he said. "This is just a downpayment on years of work."