Council leaning toward combined city hall/police station ballot measure– but at what cost?

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City Hall Advisory Committee member Stephen Barnes, far right, speaks with, from left, Mountlake Terrace City Councilmembers Bryan Wahl, Rick Ryan and Doug McCardle, and City Manager Scott Hugill June 29.

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

8 COMMENTS

  1. Walking around Mountlake Terrace one sees a town in great flux. I think it’s essential to try to imagine what this city will look like in ten years and NOT expanding our police department would be a huge mistake.

  2. A reduction in building size, while it may decrease overall cost, will actually result in an INCREASE in cost per square foot, not a decrease.

    And I believe it was the ceiling, not the roof, which collapsed in the demolished City Hall building.

    • You are right about it being the ceiling rather than the roof — I’ve fixed that. As for the square footage comment, I believe I quoted Mr. Barnes correctly but I’m sure he’ll let me know if something needs to be corrected.

  3. I think a major problem is that it is on the August ballot. That is probably the one that gets the least amount of voters. It would probably do better on a November ballot.

  4. Oops, sorry, I see it is on the November Ballot, I see August is the deadline to get it on the ballot.

  5. There is not now enough time to answer questions about the size and, therefore, the cost of city hall because the Citizen Advisory Committee resisted that subject for 5 month. Two members tried repeatedly to interject the concept of industry standards into their process to no avail.

    It was his frustration with the result that led to Stan Lake’s Minority Report. No, kids shouldn’t be cramped at school nor should city staff be cramped at work, but Mr. Lake’s alternative doesn’t suggest a cramped workplace. The resulting work area would still greatly exceed current standards. Let me quote Mr. Lake, “With what majesty is our city government imbued which other modern office workers are not?”

    That history is necessary to understand my comments about council “acknowledging” industry trends and answering why the city hall size is essentially unchanged from earlier requests. The police conceded nearly 20% of their original ask; city staff conceded nothing. Voters can decide where the politicians priorities lie and why they want the police on the same ballot.

    After three times parading absurd numbers in front of voters, we are now expected to be content with merely overpriced. With so many other capital projects in our immediate future, maybe another NO vote is exactly what it will take for the council to finally enforce economizing equal to that which the outside world imposes on the rest of us everyday.

  6. In a comment on a different thread, Dustin reported that the average space per employee, after stripping out the meeting rooms, hallways, and other common areas, is 95 square feet. That’s less than half a standard parking space (which is 20′ X 10′). That doesn’t seem exactly royal to me. City staff don’t have the kind of jobs that are amenable to the space-saving trends in general office space – they can’t meet the public at Starbucks, they can’t take advantage of hoteling and remote work, and this is not a call center with cubicles and phones. Isn’t this proposal 1/3 of the original cost? Most people would call a 2/3 cost reduction a win and declare victory.

  7. What I would like to see is an equal measure comparison of this proposal to other like projects that similar size communities have completed.

    It feels like both sides are not even agreeing on what is a per square foot number. One side is taking the whole campus and dividing by cost. The other is cutting out various areas and then dividing by number of employees (and sometimes using not current employee numbers but projected future hires).

    Frankly I don’t care which set of figures are used, compare the same measurement to other completed projects and lets see how they stack up.

    Being a lot less than before still doesn’t make it automatically a good deal. I offer to sell you a work truck worth $6,000 for $30,000 and you say no, then $25,000, then $20,000 and finally for $10,000 offering it at 2/3 off my opening price. Do you now buy it on good faith that it must be a bargain simply because it is so much less than I tried to get you to spend?

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