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City Hall to stay downtown
by MARK COUHIG and MATTHEW NASH
After years of exploring options for a new city hall property, the Sequim City Council approved a $1,250,000 agreement with Serenity House of Clallam County on Monday night to purchase buildings at 215 N. Sequim Ave.
City Manager Steve Burkett said the property includes the thrift store and a 10-unit apartment building comprising 22,000 square feet. The purchased property extends from Seal Street to Sequim Avenue and connects to the existing city hall property at 152 W. Cedar St.
Serenity House requested the city lease back the buildings for $1,500 a month for three years. The city agreed, with the final details still being negotiated.
Burkett said the city won’t need the buildings immediately and the arrangement will provide time for Serenity House to find new facilities.
Mayor Ken Hays said the sale also suited the plans of the Serenity House board. “They’re going to move on to a new space,” he said. “They want to grow.”
Vote long in coming
Councilors voted 5-1 to approve the purchase, with Bill Huizinga absent and Don Hall voting no because he preferred an option to purchase properties along Spruce Street.
Hays was excited about the vote. “It’s been a mission for a lot of people for a long time. I think it’s a great day for the city.”
Hays expects the Serenity House thrift shop, the apartments and the existing city hall to be razed to make room for the new facility. Current estimates suggest the new facilities, which will consolidate the administrative offices, public safety and public works employees in one location, will have between 30,000-40,000 square feet, with a price tag of $12 million to $18 million.
Burkett also was pleased with the outcome. “I think it’s a really big goal that the city council had asked me to accomplish. I go back and think of the history of the city. It’s only the third time in 100 years that we’ve bought land and had plans to expand city hall.
“Looking ahead ... if we get this accomplished, we’ll have a civic center here for another 100 years.”
Burkett’s enthusiasm was tempered by one possible roadblock. “In order to actually build a new building, the public is going to have to agree upon this,” he said.
“If the public decides they don’t want to build a new city hall because of the economic situation right now, then we wouldn’t be able to build it until the public decides yes, it’s a worthwhile investment for the city.”
Burkett is looking into several options for financing the construction of the new facility. That may include saving up to increase the city’s city hall capital projects fund. There is $2.25 million in the fund, with $50,000 budgeted for the renovations now under way. Much of the balance is expected to be spent on the purchase of the Serenity House property.
The city also may ask voters to approve an increase in sales tax or property tax.
“It’s really early in the process,” Burkett said. “Maybe next year we’ll have an election.”
Burkett noted that the city is now paying $193,000 a year in rent “and we’re not building equity.” That funding could be directed to the mortgage payments, Burkett said.
In interviews before the vote was taken, both Burkett and Hays had expressed their belief that now is the best time to build a new city hall, with both citing current favorable interest rates and construction costs.
Leading up to the vote
Hays said finding a location was a logical first step, one that will lead to greater enthusiasm on the part of city residents for building a new city hall.
“At some point we have to sell this to the public. You can’t do that well without a site. If we nail down the site, we can go to the next level,” Hays said.
They may have a tough sell ahead. A recent city survey showed that when given a choice of potential capital improvement projects to complete, just 35 percent of residents were “somewhat to very supportive” of building a new city hall, compared to 84 percent for improving streets and 77 percent for reducing traffic congestion.
Burkett said the results of the survey weren’t surprising, saying voters always are going to be much more interested in roads, water and police officers.
“People use water and roads every day,” Burkett said. “Not many people visit city hall. In most cities, it’s not on their radar.”
He noted that, “More than 60 percent were supportive or neutral. We’re confident we can get the situation out there. The (current) city hall was built when the city was one-third the size we are now.”
Hays said building a new city hall has been a priority for three different councils who all have seen the wisdom of consolidating city management while reducing the amount of money now spent by the city on rent.
The “ideal is to build something for 20 to 30 years,” Burkett said. “You don’t want to borrow on something we outgrow in 10 years.”
That calls for some tough decisions, he said. “It’s like a young family wanting to grow but you can only buy what you can afford.”
Hays also defended conducting the purchase negotiations in private, saying both state law and fiscal common sense call for confidentiality. “It keeps the property from inflating wildly,” he said. “I’m not sure there was a responsibility” to include the public in the council’s negotiations, he said.
Hays said the current configuration of office space has been “detrimental to employees and the community” since the 1990s. “It’s a disjointed organization,” he said.
Burkett echoed Hays’ comments, saying what is “most important is the opportunity for the city to get all management staff into one building.” Currently, department heads are scattered among city hall, the police department, the city hall annex and public works and community development.
“Obviously we have phone and e-mail but it’s more convenient if I could walk down the hall and have an impromptu conversation with someone about an issue,” he said. “Right now, it’s easier for things to fall through the cracks. It’s harder to have good teamwork.”
Mayor Pro Tem Laura Dubois pointed out that voters “need to understand we have people across town. That adds to fuel costs and other inefficiencies that cost us money.”
Hays distilled the thinking: “It’s horribly inefficient,” he said.
Burkett said the next tasks are “to close the real estate deal, do more detailed planning on the city needs, develop more precise cost estimates, engage the community to develop a project that is supported by the community, and of course, develop a financing plan for the project.”
Acquiring the site, he said, is “only the first step.”
Like Hays, Burkett believes the process is vital to the success of the project.
“If we are able to develop a package and proposal that the community thinks is good for the community long-term and worth the cost, then the project will move forward and be completed over the next several years.”