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City Hall Rehab Questioned

Lebanon — City councilors expressed reservations about a proposed two-year, $2.7 million City Hall renovation during their final discussion of the 2014 municipal budget before it comes up for a vote next month.

The renovation is being proposed by City Manager Greg Lewis.

The two-phase project would first deal with the building’s lower level, which houses the Planning and Zoning office.

The second phase would handle the second and third floors, which house the city clerk’s office, the city manager’s office, city council chambers, and other departments.

City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss said at a budget hearing last week that she has qualms about the size of the proposed capital improvements budget, which accounts for nearly $14.2 million in the proposed $52.2 million budget for 2014.

That is $4.7 million more than this year’s capital spending plan.

The capital budget also includes sorely-needed wastewater facility improvements, sewer projects mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency and upgrades to emergency response equipment, among other items.

“I see the things we have to do versus the things we want to do, and from the timing perspective, I’m not so sure,” said Prentiss.

Lewis responded that, “just so my perspective’s clear, this is not a ‘want.’

“This is an absolute need,” Lewis said.

The project would address office and work space organization; heating, ventilation and cooling systems; accessibility for the disabled; as well as noise mitigation and “proper lighting.”

Addressing city councilor concerns, Lewis emphasized his view that, while the renovation represents a “tough decision,” the return justifies the expense.

“We said that a core value of the city was excellent planning, and the current planning department, in terms of space, it doesn’t exhibit excellent planning,” Lewis said. “It exhibits a bunch of hard-working people doing the best they can in poor-quality space.”

If both phases of the project move forward, they would add 5 cents to the 2015 tax rate, amounting to $12.50 for a $250,000 home.

The following year, the project would add another 14 cents, or $35 for a $250,000 home. The projects would not be completely paid off until 2035.

Other city councilors sounded less than convinced of its necessity.

City Councilor Erling Heistad said that the renovation was something to “work on” going forward.

“But I have a difficult time right now,” he said, referring to other tax rate increases. “There’s a lot of people struggling to stay in town.”

City Councilor Nicole Cormen also expressed hesitation.

“If I look at this as an investment in the future, I think it’s a good investment,” she said. “I’m still concerned about the timing because of the impact on taxpayers overall.”

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill voiced support for including the renovation in next year’s budget.

“While I understand and share the reservations that other councilors have brought forward, my inclination would be that we should sort of take it or leave it,” she said. “The manager is proposing a pilot (budget) and I think we either have to jump all in or not, and I would be hesitant at this point to start carving up the manager’s pilot project.”

Assistant Mayor Steve Wood, who has been absent from council budget work sessions as he recovers from a severe case of bronchitis, said in a phone interview on Monday that he is still on the fence.

“I think it’s important to scrutinize the capital projects as carefully as we scrutinize the general fund expenditures,” he said

Senior Planner David Brooks, who works in the Planning and Zoning Office, said from his perspective, the department is crunched for space.

“We don’t have enough room on this level to keep all the active files close at hand,” said Brooks. “There’s even a sub-level below us, but there’s not enough room there either because we’re required by state law to keep certain files forever, and over time, it just gets to be more and more.”

Brooks added that the heating, cooling and ventilation systems are also concerns. He said the indoor air is stale and that temperatures are often uncomfortable.

Zoning Director Carmela Hennessy said the working conditions in City Hall “aren’t horrible, but it could definitely be improved upon, especially the fresh air.”

Hennessy, a 35-year City Hall veteran, could think of two other times the building has been renovated: once in the late 1980s, when the upper floor was re-done, and once since, when the side entrance was added.

The City Council will vote to appropriate the capital budget on Dec. 18, at which point it could reduce funding amounts and issue a directive on the renovation project. The Council will also vote on whether to approve the rest of the budget that night.

In total, the $52.2 million budget would increase the municipal tax rate by 3.5 percent to $9.76 per $1,000 of assessed value, bringing annual taxes on a $250,000 home to $2,440.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.