With just a few weeks to make a decision on the dollar amount and scope of a Mountlake Terrace City Hall plan to place before voters in November, Mountlake Terrace City Councilmembers continued to debate the options during their June 29 work/study session.
The council must decide by mid-July on the final proposal so an ordinance can be prepared for a final council vote by late July. This will allow the city to meet Snohomish County’s Aug. 1 deadline for submitting the ballot measure. Because the council has fewer meetings this month (the Monday, July 3 meeting has been canceled due to the City’s 3rd of July celebration at Ballinger Park), the council is targeting its July 13 meeting to finalize the plan.
The City Hall Advisory Committee recommended June 5 that the council pursue a $11.6 million, 19,210-square-foot proposal for a new city hall on the November ballot, followed — if that measure passes — by a vote on the February 2018 ballot for $1.8 million to remodel the city’s police station. The advisory committee’s vote was 5-4, with some favoring that both measures to appear on the same ballot. Vice chair H. Stan Lake issued his own “dissenting opinion” suggesting that further space reductions could make the city hall plan even more affordable.
During their June 29 meeting, councilmembers continued to explore whether further space reductions were possible, but they also expressed support for putting the city hall building and the police station together on the same Nov. 7 ballot.
The as-yet-unanswered question, however: How much should that combined ballot measure cost the taxpayers? While $13.4 million is the figure that’s been presented, there was much discussion about whether the council could find a way to make that dollar amount smaller, and thus more appealing to voters.
Addressing an earlier request from councilmembers, City Manager Scott Hugill said he researched whether any city dollars — in particular, allocations from paid-off bond debt — could be used to reduce the cost of the city hall bond measure. The city does have some debt that will be paid off in 2020 and would have dollars available in 2021 that could be put toward this project, Hugill explained. But the city would have to find other sources to cover that amount in 2018, 2019 and 2020, until those dollars are available.
Hugill suggested that the council include as part of its proposal $100,000 annually toward the city hall debt, because that’s what the city can cover for those first three years until the bond debt is retired and those payments can be directed to a new city hall. “I’m not recommending more than $100,000 because we have a long list of other capital items to address, including the recreation pavilion, sidewalks, parks,” the city manager said.
By applying that $100,000 annually for 30 years, the council could place on the ballot an $11.6 million proposal for a new city hall and police station combined, rather than the $13.4 million currently proposed for both projects.
The City of Mountlake Terrace has been renting its City Hall space at the Redstone building off 220th Street Southwest for years — at a cost of $40,000 per month — following a ceiling collapse in 2008 that made the old City Hall unsafe for employees. Three previous ballot measures — one for $37.5 million in 2010 and two more for $25 million in 2012 and 2013 — failed to reach the required 60 percent to pass a capital bond measure.
Those past bond failures weighed heavily on the minds of CHAC members who voted to place just the city hall measure on the November ballot, and have also been top of mind for councilmembers as they discuss various options.
During the June 29 meeting, the council heard from two members of the City Hall Advisory Committee (CHAC).
Committee member Maggie Hyneman — who supports combining the city hall and police station on the same ballot — shared that after five months of working on the issue and attending numerous neighborhood meetings, she felt “the community was really behind this (a new city hall).” She said she got the same feeling while canvassing her neighborhood, where residents are long-time homeowners. “They said, Yes, ‘it’s time. We need to get this done. And nobody’s going to fight it anymore.'”
Councilmember Seaun Richards asked Hyneman if she thought there would be a difference in voters’ support for city hall alone or the combined city hall/police station.
“Canvassing my neighborhood, everyone said it’s such a small amount between the two and we would get so much for the police station,” Hyneman said. “Why would we not do that? ‘If the city hall is the only thing on the ballot, shame on you guys.'”
The five CHAC members who voted to support a city hall only had worked on past city hall campaigns, “and they were just kind of gun shy putting too much out there to the people,” she added.
CHAC member Stephen Barnes told the council that he is “very happy we’ve found another place to get funds.” But he reiterated his belief that it may still be possible to further reduce the square footage of the proposed city hall, and thus lower the total cost of ballot measure even further — perhaps to as little as $9.8 million — which could result in 80 percent voter approval. Barnes suggested following Mayor Jerry Smith’s earlier idea to reduce the project square footage by 10 percent, which would drop the cost per square foot to $550, which is about where the market is, Barnes said.
By further lowering the project cost, “you have an opportunity to get 80 percent of the people on board and prepare yourselves for the next thing, which is all those other (capital) projects that we have on the back burner,” Barnes said.
Councilmember Bryan Wahl raised the idea of “designing the building in a way that easily expandable and at a more affordable price.” He said he worries that if the city doesn’t plan for sufficient space, “we’ve built for something that is going to be out fo date and undersized.”
Barnes replied that “since 2000 the trend has been smaller and smaller and smaller office spaces and shared spaces,” and that trend is projected to continue.
Councilmember Doug McCardle noted there is “a lot of chatter” about reducing the building size, but pointed to his experiences in his own workplace, as a teacher at Meadowdale Middle School. “I look at the school I currently teach in. It’s four years old. It was built based on trends and projections. The day we opened it’s too small.
“I’m open to the idea of reducing square footage and looking at a smaller building but not to the point where we’re going to cramp our employees and create undue stress because the space they need to do their job isn’t big enough. Because I go to a building that is like that every day,” he said.
Wahl said he’s still not certain “what is the magic dollar amount” is for the project. “We need to know what the public is going to support.”
During the public comment period, Mountlake Terrace resident Len French, who has been an outspoken opponent of previous city hall bond proposals, said he believes the city still hasn’t seriously considered the idea of reducing the size of the proposed city hall.
“I’d be glad to support and stand down on the No Committee if I’d just see some acknowledgment… that this trend (of downsizing) is in place and that these folks (staff) are not immune to it,” French said. He suggested that a third party outside of the city reviewi what is reasonable in terms of space.
The goal should be to save as much money as possible to fund “all the darn things you have to pay for, like the expanded Rec Pavilion,” French said.
McCardle suggested that city staff “take a second look at their space needs and as the staff if there are any space needs that could be realized to reduce the costs and have a smaller building, less price and leverage the debt.”
Wahl wondered if it was possible to “squeeze a little more out of it” and reduce the proposal to $11 million or $11.5 million, “get the support from the public and get creative down the line to make up the rest.”
Councilmember Kyoko Matsumoto Wright asked if the city could reduce its space needs by going paperless. “We make strides in that direction but paper keeps showing up from the state and the feds,” Hugill said. “As long as you have state auditors, you’ll have paper. They bring printers with them.”
Hugill then asked the council if there was a desire for the city to hire a third party to review the city hall design for possible additional space savings.
“I don’t know if there’s time for a third party and I don’t know if I want to endure that cost,” Councilmember Laura Sonmore replied.
Hugill said that both the current city hall building cost and size are based on “very conceptual designs” and as a result costs are probably “conservatively high” and the size is probably “conservatively large.” The council can start trimming costs when they have a final design to work with, he said.
“My recommendation is to go after the $11.6 (million) because you don’t have time to do anything else,” Hugill said. “You put the committee in charge of bringing you that recommendation and they did yeoman’s work going out the community with meetings, neighborhood chats, and vetting this out and meeting with the architect and asking questions.
“Otherwise, you’re at the point where you’re going to have to wait until 2018 to get something to voters, which means another year of renting,” he said.
— By Teresa Wippel