A new city hall for Hermiston would come with an approximately $9 million price tag if the city council approves the idea this year, city manager Byron Smith told the council on Monday night.
The price would include about $700,000 of renovations to the basement of the Hermiston Public Library so that city staff could use the space during the 18-month construction period, and the rest of the cost would go toward building a new city hall on the same site as the current one.
Preliminary designs show a two-story building with a basement, with each of the three floors about 9,200 square feet in size. The municipal court would move into the new building, freeing up space for the police department in its current building, and would also move the building department and other staff out of the old Carnegie Library.
Marcus Valentine, of Architects West, said the city’s current building at 180 N.E. Gladys Ave., a renovated bank building first built in 1965, is not ideal. The building is split between five levels but does not have an elevator, and its restrooms, council dais, counters and some hallways are not conducive to someone in a wheelchair. City staff have also outgrown the building, causing them to spread to other buildings, and there are security issues.
“It’s clearly deficient in a lot of respects,” he said.
The concept he presented Monday is one that he and Smith said would be much more accessible and more efficient for city staff.
Only two people instead of four would be needed to staff the front counters, for example. There would also be room to grow, and Smith said there was another government agency that had already expressed interest in leasing space in the basement until the city needed it.
Meanwhile, city staff could use the basement of the library, which Smith described as “very underutilized.”
Valentine said architects had been talking with library staff about what would make the basement more usable, and had been told one of the main problems was that the layout made supervision difficult. He proposed a renovation to the basement that would remove or shift many of the walls, making it more ideal for a makeshift city hall, but also creating a space that would be much more usable for the library as a children’s section in the future.
“We want to appropriately maximize the space,” Valentine said.
The city had conducted an online survey about city hall in preparation for the discussion. Smith said they received 202 responses in English and eight responses to the Spanish survey. Fifty-six percent of the respondents said they came to city hall at least a few times per year. Their top wishes for city hall were disability access, efficiency and timely access.
Smith read several of the written comments left on the survey’s open-ended section, which gave mixed support. One person said they were firmly against a new city hall, as it “adds taxes,” while another said they get jealous when they look at the nicer city halls of Boardman and Umatilla.
The city had originally been planning on waiting for a few years to build a new city hall, but a fire in December has given the city a choice to use its approximately $175,000 insurance payout to repair the old building knowing it might not stay up much longer, or put it toward a new one.
Smith recommended building now.
“There’s not going to be a cheaper time to do this,” he said. “We have a very good interest rate environment right now, and construction costs are not going to go down.”
He said the city could borrow the money via full faith and credit bonds, with either a 15-, 20- or 30-year payment. The 30-year payment would be $439,000 per year, which Smith said he felt confident the city could handle. He said the city could use enterprise zone payments in lieu of taxes from companies such as Lamb Weston, Amazon and a new large project he hopes to present to the council in May.
Councilor John Kirwan said he felt the timing was right to act now, and there was no reason the city couldn’t try to pay off the debt in less than 30 years.
“To me, spending that money smartly is to make the investment sooner rather than later, and pull the trigger,” he said.
Councilor Jackie Myers said she believed it was important for the city to send a message about accessibility. Right now, she said, there are people in the community who are hindered from conducting business, working at or serving in city hall.
Councilor Roy Barron said he liked the idea of making the library a more attractive place in the process, and called city hall “the peoples’ house.”
Mayor David Drotzmann questioned how the city would pay a 30-year debt obligation after the current enterprise zone agreements run out in 15 years, and said he worried about sticking a future generation of city leaders with a difficult debt burden.
“We can always pay it off sooner, but that just doesn’t seem to happen very often in government,” he said.
However, he supported the overall idea of a new city hall, saying it sent a statement to the outside world that Hermiston “means business and wants to be a player” in the state.
City councilors plan to vote on the proposal for a new city hall during their Feb. 24 council meeting.
The survey on the city’s website remains active for the rest of the month, and Smith said the city would host a few public open houses on the topic, including one at 6 p.m. next Tuesday at the Hermiston Public Library.