City Manager Byron Smith fielded questions from residents about a proposed new city hall on Tuesday ahead of next Monday’s city council meeting, where councilors plan to take a vote on the issue.
Smith met with seniors at the Harkenrider Senior Activity Center in the afternoon, and presented the same information again to a crowd of more than 40 people at the Hermiston Public Library on Tuesday night.
One of the biggest sticking points for residents opposed to the plan has been the estimated $9 million price tag for the project, roughly $700,000 of which would go to remodeling the basement of the library to serve as an interim place for people to pay bills and conduct other business.
Smith emphasized at the library meeting that the figure was an estimate by the architects, based on a very preliminary design, and the project could come in lower once a more detailed design was complete and the project was put out to bid.
“There’s a lot of cushion in those numbers,” he said.
Residents at the meeting had a lot of questions about the details of how the project would be paid for. Smith explained that the city could use payments from Lamb Weston, Amazon, and other future projects under enterprise zone agreements that allow them to give the city cash payments directly in lieu of paying a full property tax.
The estimated debt payments the city would take on for the new city hall would be $439,291 per year for 30 years. The city will get $500,000 a year from Lamb Weston for the next 15 years, although the first $2 million of that had been planned for the new water tower the city recently built.
In answer to a question about what else the enterprise zone payments could go toward if they weren’t used for city hall, Smith said there were many projects it could go toward, but the money hadn’t been earmarked for specific projects, other than the water tower.
Smith said another government agency was interested in leasing part of the proposed city hall’s basement until the city grew into the extra space, which would also help pay part of the cost. The city was not planning on using property taxes, he said.
“A lot of people care about cost right now, especially senior citizens on a fixed income,” attendee Mark Gomolski told Smith. “What guarantee do you have that you’re not going to go back on that?”
Smith noted that under state law, the city has “zero ability” to raise the property tax rate without going before the voters, similar to the Hermiston School District’s recent election for a bond levy to pay for new schools. The other way the city gets more property tax revenue is when the value of the property being taxed goes up — such as a piece of bare land being developed into something more valuable — and the city doesn’t control that process.
Gomolski also asked why the city couldn’t put its $175,000 insurance payout from the December fire at city hall into fixing the HVAC system, carpeting and other damaged parts of the current building, and wait a few years until developers have built some of the planned subdivisions and other developments that have been announced, increasing the property tax revenue the city brings in.
Smith said the city could do that, but said that construction costs have been inflating by about 3.5% per year, and interest rates are unusually low right now, so the price tag would go up.
On another theme, residents asked questions around why the city couldn’t use the Hermiston Community Center. Smith had answers for that, too, stating that it would cost millions of dollars to renovate a 60-year-old building, originally built as a grocery store, with a large open space, into a city hall. He also expressed concern about the old city hall becoming a blight on downtown.
“Is there a market for the current city hall? The challenges we have would be passed onto the next owner,” he said, referring to the current building’s lack of accessibility and other problems.
He also noted that the various events, both public and private, held in the community center would need moved elsewhere.
When someone asked whether the city was still considering selling the community center, Smith said a private buyer had previously approached the city about selling the property, and had been told that the city would be willing to consider a formal offer if one was made. That finalized proposal, he said, the city was still waiting on, and “at this point it looks like it’s probably not on its way.”
“We never put out a sign saying the community center was for sale,” he said.
Several other questions revolved around parking for the project. Smith said the owner of the Lanham building to the east of city hall had expressed a willingness to sell, which would open up more space for parking directly on the property, in addition to street parking and the municipal lots across the street to the west and behind the library.
Smith also answered questions about space. The proposed new building would be a total of about 22,000 square feet — 15,000 if the city did not add the basement to lease. The current city hall is about 9,000 square feet, he said, with the building department taking up about 1,500 square feet in the Carnegie Library and the municipal court taking up roughly 2,000 square feet in the public safety building.
He said the police department is “bursting at the seams” and has officers with offices in a separate building because they don’t all fit inside the safety center, so the current municipal court space could easily be used by the department. As for the century-old Carnegie Library, he said the community has in the past expressed an interest in using the space for a museum or other downtown attraction.