Council: Ex-Forest Service building could save city dollars

Sean C. Morgan

City councilors told members of the public during a May 10 meeting that moving City Hall would probably save the city money compared to building a new City Hall at costs much lower than a Portland architect estimated earlier this year.

Retired Police Chief Bob Burford asked the council about its plans to move City Hall to the old Sweet Home Ranger District building. He indicated concern over whether it’s a good idea.

Decisions like that require a lot of careful study and input from the community, he told the council.

On May 2, the council agreed to put down $25,000 in earnest money for the property, 3225 Main St. If the council decides to move forward, it will pay a total of $750,000 for the property in July. This was the first public action the council has taken in the process.

Several residents were concerned that this was the first time they were hearing about the project and told the council that the remodel would be costly.

Sid Scott, a Portland architect previously told the council that remodeling that building would cost $1.8 million to $2.4 million for the 12,700-square-foot property, in addition to the purchase price of the property – a total cost of $2.55 million to $3.15 million.

Burford also said that moving City Hall from a struggling downtown area is contrary to recommended revitalization efforts.

“Can you assure us as a body you’ve done your due diligence?” he asked the council. He also asked if funds were available and whether this is the best way to move forward with a new City Hall.

The city also received unofficial estimates from Scott last fall for rebuilding at City Hall’s current site, 1140 12th Ave. Those costs ranged from $1.6 million to $3.8 million. The lowest estimate was for a 40-percent increase to the size of the existing City Hall, 12,900 square feet. The largest was the high estimate for a 22,840-square-foot City Hall, a 150 percent increase in size.

The city is on the beginning side of the due-diligence process, said Councilor Bruce Hobbs, who said he doesn’t know yet if purchasing the Main Street property would be best for a new City Hall.

Other councilors believe the actual cost of remodeling the building, will be more like $300,000 to $400,000.

On Friday, city Senior Engineering Technician Joe Graybill told The New Era that the difference between Scott’s estimate for a remodel and the councilors’ estimate is based on different standards. Scott’s estimates anticipate remodeling to a critical facility standard, so City Hall could be used as an emergency operations center during an emergency situation.

If Sweet Home were to construct a brand new building, it would need to be built at that higher standard, said Building Inspector Mike Remesnik. The community already has three buildings constructed to that level, the Police Department, Fire Hall and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

If not constructing a building to that level, Remesnik coundn’t see any reason why the remodeling at $300,000 to $400,000 isn’t possible.

“I went out there and looked just to look,” he said. “I think it’s a good building. I’m trying to get plans for it right now.”

The building was constructed in 1989 for the Sweet Home Ranger District, he said. Permitting and inspections were handled at the federal level, and the federal government usually builds to a higher standard.

Goodwin believes that new construction would cost more than remodeling, he said. New construction is expensive.

“The one (City Hall) we have is untenable,” Goodwin said. “In the long term, we have to move.”

In reading the earnest money agreement, Burford said, he didn’t see where the city could get out of the contract if the council decided it did not want to pursue the property except for a failed inspection.

Mayor Jim Gourley said the city had to lock in the price.

Councilors were concerned about pursuing the property publicly because they believed the property owner would raise the price, so they pursued negotiations through an agent and held their meetings on the property in closed executive sessions as permitted by state law.

Hobbs said that the city may be risking the earnest money if it turns out not to be in the city’s best interest.

“Maybe we eat crow on this,” Hobbs said. “Maybe we eat the $25,000. There’s an inherent risk when you get into some of these deals.”

That’s a concern, especially when using “other people’s money,” he said.

But the price is much lower than it used to be, he said May 2.

“The opportunity came up to get this at a discount rate.”

The clock for closing the deal is ticking now, Goodwin said, and he wondered what the city has done so far in terms of inspecting the building.

Finance Director Pat Gray said Monday that the city has received quotes for appraisal and environmental assessments and is ready to move forward with inspections.

Funding for the building is available through the city’s building reserve fund, which Finance Director Pat Gray said contains $1 million. The city has a policy to budget $80,000 a year into the fund, although it has not transferred any money to the fund for the past five years.

The city Budget Committee on May 11 added the transfer to the proposed 2016-17 budget before approving it (see page 12). The budget will move to council for adoption by the end of June.

The fund has been used in the past to pay for other buildings, including a majority of the Sweet Home Police Department and the Public Works maintenance yard off 24th Avenue.

“We may have to go to the voters to get more money,” Goodwin said. He asked whether voters would prefer to pay $500,000 for a bond compared to $3.5 million for a new building.

Gourley said the city would not purchase the property and then seek a bond levy. That’s something the council would decide before purchasing the building.

Gray told The New Era on Friday that the city doesn’t need to move immediately from the existing City Hall to a new one. It has time to work on the building before moving.

She said the current City Hall, built in 1954, has problems with rot in the walls and with mold. When windows were replaced in the 1970s, they weren’t sealed correctly, causing problems throughout City Hall. The city installed wainscot over many of the walls that were bubbling out.

The city has had to abate mold, and the floor isn’t level, she said. The roof leaks, and the basement has major leaks that are difficult to address.

Last year, the city had to replace the main doors to the building because the wood had rotted out around them, Gray said. The city had to replace the back door as well.

Water runs from the roof to the basement through the exterior walls, Remesnik said. If it has water, “you know there’s black mold in it.”

The windows are single panes, Remesnik said.

Duct tape covers tiny openings around them in the basement.

Concrete blocks are often soft in one place and firm in others, he said. He is concerned about the condition of the structure.

“I don’t know if you could fix it,” Remesnik said. “An engineer would have to come through. We don’t know the full extent of everything that’s bad. You might find so much, you have to tear it down. You never know.”

He doesn’t know what it would cost to repair City Hall, he said.

She isn’t spending a set amount annually to ensure the building remains usable, but she told the council that it’s “nickel and diming” the city.

The old Forest Service building is much larger than the city needs right now, Hobbs said, but the city is growing and will need more space, noting that City Hall has expanded into the City Hall Annex and Sweet Home Police Department.

The Municipal Court moved from City Hall into the annex, a temporary modular building, when the police moved from there to their current location in 2001.

Looking toward the future, Hobbs said, he asked what the biggest bang for the buck will be now.

Trask said that, after talking to other people, the building is in good shape and he believes Scott’s estimate is highly inflated.

“It’s something we can buy at a very good price, I think,” Trask said.

Today, City Hall houses 14 employees, including four in the basement – about the same total number as it has been for at least the past 20 years.

In 1996, City Hall had about 10 employees, plus the Police Department housed in the basement. After the flood of February 1996, the Police Department moved into the modular building. The basement was vacant.

When the police moved to their new building in 2001, the Municipal Court moved to the modular building. The council chamber also moved out to the modular building, opening up room on the main floor of City Hall.

Several Public Works employees moved to City Hall from Ninth Avenue at that point, including the Public Works director as well as engineering and building employees. At that point, City Hall had approximately 10 employees on the main floor and five building and engineering employees in the basement.