Though few question the need to add space for city services, a plan that bypasses the ballot has attracted opposition. The Columbia City Council tomorrow will begin the process of deciding the plan’s fate.
Published Sunday, August 20, 2006
Columbia’s Information Services department in January moved out of its offices in the Daniel Boone Building’s basement after a chunk of water-damaged ceiling fell on an employee’s desk.
Help desk worker Danny Paul was away from his workstation.
The basement was the first stop on a tour for the Public Buildings Committee members yesterday. Members wanted to see what shape the building was in and hear plans for a $22 million project to renovate and expand municipal office space, which city officials say is sorely needed.
The execution of a plan for new city offices looms for Columbia taxpayers. Though civic activists and two former Columbia City Council members suggest the plan should be put on a ballot, city leaders are prepared to move forward with only council approval.
An important step toward building a new city hall downtown will be taken tomorrow, when residents will be allowed to speak about the project during a public hearing at the regular 7 p.m. council meeting in the Daniel Boone Building.
The discussion surely will be lively and likely will involve questions about financing, a citywide vote and whether the city needs a new office building at all. Past plans for a downtown city government center stalled amid some of those very questions.
"We hope the community looks at this as the next logical step to a municipal master plan," said Tony St. Romaine, an assistant city manager.
The building would be paid for with an annual $700,000 transfer of property tax revenue that began in 2002; with money from the sale of special obligation bonds, which don’t require a public vote; and with rental payments from city departments.
St. Romaine said Wednesday that the expense of continuing to lease space for city departments, even excluding future needs, would cost the city as much as the building project.
"With inflation, by 2025 we’d be paying $477,000 annually, and it doesn’t address future work force needs," he said. "That’s $11.5 million. If you take that plus the $6 million for the Daniel Boone Building renovation, we’re already up to $17 million, and at the end of that period we own nothing," he said.
Back in the basement Wednesday, committee members watched as Robert Simms, information services director, pointed to areas of exposed rebar - rods used to reinforce concrete - where the ceiling had crumbled. Ruth Tofle, professor of architectural studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a committee member, asked about the air quality in the dank room.
Simms said an internal air quality study of the room in 2002 found high levels of carbon dioxide because of low airflow, but the levels were not deemed harmful. Simms said diesel fumes filled the space every time a trailer truck parked on Broadway. "Headaches were common among my people," he said. "We took a lot of breaks for fresh air."
Each floor on the tour featured new problems. The second and third floors of the Daniel Boone Building house the Public Works Department. Director John Glascock said employees in the department work two to a cubicle.
The department needs to hire more employees, he said, but doesn’t have the space. A converted closet serves as an office for a full-time building inspector hired recently to work on housing restoration projects.
Finance Director Lori Fleming said space constraints affect her department as well. As the city has grown, so have the number of utility customers, but cramped space in the annex building that houses the utility department means no new employees can be hired, she said.
The lack of office space has forced the city to lease more space, including in the Bank of America building at 800 E. Cherry St. The building houses the Finance Department’s payroll office, among others. Fleming said payroll paperwork must be walked across downtown, which is inefficient.
St. Romaine pointed out customers face similar inconvenience when they have to visit more than one building for access to city services.
On the fourth floor of the Daniel Boone Building, which houses the city clerk’s office and council chambers, emergency workers would find it impossible to get a gurney into the building because the elevators are too small.
"Last week we had an incident in which a gentleman thought he was having a heart attack," said Glascock. "There is no way to get a gurney up here. You have to use either a wheelchair, but if they are incapacitated the only other way is down the stairs or out the window."
Evacuating a large crowd from council meetings could also pose problems, St. Romaine said.
"As we started working on evacuation plans for the city, we realized it would be very difficult to move 200 people out of here safely. In the new building, we proposed putting the council chambers on the first floor," he said.
The Gates/Rader Building on Eighth Street, which houses the Office of Cultural Affairs and Volunteer Services, ranked worst in a building survey for overall condition, evidenced by cracking plaster and multiple patches on the building’s exterior to keep out water. The second floor of the building is also not ADA-compliant.
The Gates/Rader Building and the annex building at Eighth Street and Broadway would be razed and replaced by the planned five-story addition.
At the end of the tour, committee member Kevin Gibbens, president of First National Bank & Trust Co., said the buildings look much worse than during a similar tour three years ago.
"If you work for the city, you can’t be claustrophobic," he joked.
Not everyone is convinced moving forward with the $22 million project without a citywide vote is a good idea.
Brian Ash, a former council member, said he is convinced city employees need more space to work. He also said he’s worried a decision to authorize construction work without voter approval "could come back to bite them in the long run."
If council members vote to go forward with the plan tomorrow, Ash said, voters might show their displeasure by turning down future ballot issues.
"I think this does go deeper than the usual suspects," he said. "It’s just not clear in their heads how this is different than Stephens Lake … things we did vote on."
Another former council member, Sharon Lynch, wrote in the Columbia Business Times earlier this month that the amount of money the city is seeking to use for the project creates a need for a public vote.
"Although I am not necessarily opposed to the city government center," she wrote, "I do take issue with the attitude and statements made by the majority of our city elected officials and staff in suggesting they do not need public input to make this decision."
Linda Green, an activist who helped gather more than 900 signatures on petitions asking for a public vote, said the city needs to better explain why a vote is not needed.
"There’s a lot of money involved," she said. "It’s a lot of money in a single expenditure. They ought to explain the project to us."
Council members say a citywide vote is unnecessary. The project will have to be completed, they say, whether voters approve or not.
"If they vote it down, we’re still in the same pickle," said First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton.
Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless, a plan supporter, said the public should be involved in the decision-making process through public hearings as the process moves forward with engineering and design work.
"The council needs to let the citizens appreciate the city is hearing their voices and considering their opinions," he said. "I’m not sure that message has been getting out."
Mayor Darwin Hindman said he opposes putting the project on a ballot.
"We should take the bull by the horns and act on it as a council. It’s my opinion that that’s the responsibility of the council. I guess it would be nice to send it to the people and duck the issue," he said, "but that’s not what we are supposed to do."
The mayor said the council is a year away from making its final vote on the project. If the council votes tomorrow to go forward with the process, it will be a big step, he said, but that vote will only be to request designs and specifications of the project.
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