City Hall Refurbishing Included in Budget
Lebanon — Despite concerns over a rising tax burden, city councilors last week did not close the door on a proposed $2.7 million renovation of City Hall, citing trust in the administration’s long-term vision for Lebanon.
The renovation is being proposed as a two-year, two-phase project that would first target the Planning and Zoning Department on the building’s lower level, before moving to the middle floors where departments such as the City Clerk and City Manager are housed. It would offer better organized space and address concerns over the working conditions of city employees, such as climate control and ventilation systems, accessibility for the disabled and lighting.
“It’s going to help our manager and our employees achieve the outcomes we’ve told them we want,” said Mayor Georgia Tuttle at last week’s regular Council meeting. “We’ve given them marching orders and we’ve told them to do more with less, and no new employees in the city. I think what this is going to do is bring all the people that need to talk to each other into proximity to do that.”
But councilors also expressed their reservations, especially with the tax burden, about a project for City Hall, which was built in 1924. The capital improvements plan accounts for nearly $14.2 million in the proposed $52.2 million city budget for 2014, an increase of $4.7 million from the previous year that is largely driving the uptick in spending citywide. The tax rate is projected to rise 3.5 percent if city councilors approve the budget on Dec. 18, and would come on the heels of a recently-approved 9 percent sewer rate increase.
If both phases of the City Hall 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 project would not be completely paid off until 2035.
Assistant Mayor Steve Wood spoke to the “moment of desperation” that taxpayers are experiencing. He did not fully commit to the City Hall renovation, but indicated that he was comfortable with the city’s three-year plan, which includes it.
“We are taxing people out of their houses in this town, and we’ve got to stop,” he said. “I don’t think we can stop right now. We’ve already done so many things that are making it impossible to stop right now. I think we’ve got to trust somebody to help us get to the next stage, so I’m going to take a flier on this.”
Tuttle emphasized that in City Manager Greg Lewis’s three-year projection for the city, spending is projected to tick down in 2016. She said she has lived in the city for 30 years, and can’t remember a time when spending has decreased from the previous year.
“This is the first time I feel like we maybe have a vision that with some investment, we can change the tide,” she said.
City Councilor Karen Liot Hill asked Lewis at the meeting to provide data on what types of cost savings the renovation would provide.
On Friday, Lewis said he would not be able to gather that information in time for the Dec. 18 budget meeting, when the renovation will be voted on.
“I’m not going to pick numbers out of the air,” Lewis said. “I’m not going to hire a consultant for that. I’d rather go with common sense.”
Lewis said he has already spent $30,000 on soliciting designs and bidding for the project. He said construction on the renovation would start in February if approved, and would conclude in May. During the period of construction, the Planning and Zoning Office would move to the upper level of City Hall, and City Council and Planning Board meetings would temporarily be held in the Kilton Library.
City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss, who has expressed hesitation about the renovation project, said she is hoping to either offset the cost of the project by removing other capital items or by pursuing the project incrementally. But, she added, Lewis has not given councilors any alternatives to vote on.
“I think the manager does a very good job for us, but this is one of those times that we should be preparing some alternatives, having a ‘Plan B’ and maybe seeing how this can be implemented over time versus right now,” she said.
Aside from improving conditions for city staff and residents, Lewis also said the renovation would make sense because it would improve the city’s standing with developers. He said there are tens of millions of dollars being put toward development in Lebanon, and that the investment in the Planning and Zoning Department would ensure the city has the capacity to handle some of those upcoming projects.
“We’ve got to deal with those guys on an equal footing,” he said.
Lewis said the Planning Office has been in the lower level of City Hall for at least 20 years.
Jim Ward, a residential and commercial properties specialist, represents several clients in Lebanon and serves on the city’s Economic Vitality Exchange Committee, which connects members of the business community with city representatives.
Ward said he goes to the Planning and Zoning Office on occasion, and said that local developers’ views of the city likely won’t be significantly changed by any renovation, as Lewis and some councilors have suggested.
“I don’t think the physical structure is the issue in dealing with the city,” he said. “But, I do feel like when I go in there, it looks like they are working in some pretty tough conditions with the facility.”
Paul Boucher, executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, echoed those sentiments.
“The building doesn’t make the department,” he said.
Boucher added that he does not support the project. He said the money should be invested in the city’s infrastructure, such as sewer and road systems, instead.
Ward, a Lebanon resident, said he rents and therefore does not pay property tax directly, but he said he supports the renovation project and hopes it might increase efficiency in the Planning Office.
“I think they’ll be more efficient, and it’s going to get a lot more complicated,” he said. “They’ve got some big jobs ahead of them.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.