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Oelwein City Hall

City officials have explored renovating and replacing Oelwein City Hall over a number of years.

Here we go again!

I just couldn’t help snickering and then fuming when I read about the Oelwein City Council once again considering abandoning the current City Hall building in the April 24, 2019 newspaper.

Let’s do a little history review of the current City Hall building. It was constructed in 1913 by the railroad. It was used as the depot. It was remodeled in the 1950’s. City Hall and the police department moved into the building in 1969 after the 1968 tornado as it was donated to the city by the railroad.

The police department moved out in the spring of 2014. At that time, the city committed to remodel and expand City Hall into the former police department space as it was running out of space to adequately function in serving the community. The approximate space of the former police department portion is 1,800 square feet in addition to the former sally port portion of 975 square feet for a total of approximately 2,775 square feet.

In the spring of 2016, there was an active, concerted campaign by the mayor and some council and community members to abandon City Hall. At that time, their proposal was to rent and move into space at 1 West, the former Fidelity Bank Building.

At the March 14, 2016, City Council meeting, there was discussion and consideration of motions to move or not move. The council chamber was full to capacity and flowing over into the foyer with numerous Oelwein citizens speaking out against the move, including one former council person. There were also numerous open forum letters published prior to that meeting, the majority of which were opposed to the move. The council smartly voted five ayes and one abstention to not move.

According to the Aug. 12, 2016, newspaper article, the City Council was having another discussion and evaluation of the current City Hall building. The two main issues cited were the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and the boiler systems being past their useful life. Some quotes from the article are: “The other issues are basically cosmetic, such as repairing the corners of the concrete steps at the entrance,” “This is an old building, but it’s in pretty good shape structurally,” “has adequate space” and “City Hall should have a better lobby and citizens should have better access to public restrooms. We would want to use the police side for those improvements.”

The Jan. 8, 2018, council meeting proceedings published in the newspaper indicate a “feasibility study of City Hall with WWA Architecture and Planning firm was initially authorized for signatures. However, upon discussion and review of a previously hired company a couple years prior, the final motion unanimously passed to table authorizing the signature for the feasibility study with WWA Architecture until the council and city staff review the prior City Hall study.”

At the Jan. 22, 2018, council meeting, the city administrator reported that the City Hall remodel issue would be discussed in the Capitol Improvement Program Committee work session. The Jan. 24, 2018, newspaper article of that meeting stated the city administrator said “City Hall needs to look at incremental updates, small ones that can be accomplished in reasonable time and in order of importance. No special funding will be required” and “are looking at options for those improvements to create a viable working space to the future.”

There was a City Hall architect work session held prior to the March 26, 2018, City Council meeting. I do not know what was discussed at that time.

The Nov. 28, 2018, newspaper article reported that Gardner Architecture gave a presentation prior to the council meeting on Nov. 26, 2018, indicating a $745,000 City Hall renovation plan. The article also indicated that the city administrator “noted that the city will have debt paid down in the coming year that would make the renovation project financially feasible.” No decisions were made at the work session of the meeting.

And now, we come up to the April 24, 2019, newspaper article, which indicates once again, the City Council is unsure about spending the estimated $745,000 to remodel City Hall, citing complaints council persons are hearing from their constituents about city streets needing to be fixed.

In a workshop session following the April 22, 2019, council meeting, the council directed the city administrator to “research the price of buying and renovating an existing vacant building in town, such as the former downtown home of Humach. The council will meet again at a later date to resume discussion of the issue.

According to review and citations of monthly city expenditures published in the local paper from April 2017 to April 2019, the following costs of improvements done to the City Hall Building thus far are: new furnace and air conditioning system installed for $80,009.52, crown molding in the foyer for $45, roof repair for $425, locks for $760, technology and consultation for $5,745.10 and nine payments made to Martin Gardner Architecture that total $52,372.37, for a grand total of $139,356.99 spent on City Hall renovations in the past two years whey they have had five years to put serious effort into completing the renovations.

And now with $139,356.99 already spent on renovations, they want to abandon the current City Hall building?

Do they really think they can purchase another building, have more architectural plans drawn up, have it renovated and remodeled at a better location that the current City Hall for less than the $745,000 most recently quoted for the current building?

An article in the March 2, 2016, paper indicated a Martin Gardner Architecture representative “presented an itemized City Hall renovation opinion of estimated probable costs at the Feb. 8, 2016, council meeting. The estimate included a visual of the building layout, a narrative description of the necessary work to be done and line-item figures. The project total was $482,450, which includes $950 for asbestos testing. The cost of asbestos abatement is to be determined form the testing results, which have not been completed. In his estimate, he wrote ‘We feel that these numbers are solid for the renovation work.’”

How did the recent $745,000 renovation estimate increase by $262,500; that’s a 64.75% increase in just two years and 9 months by the same architecture firm? Too much “fluff and stuff” requested or suggested?

The Nov. 26, 2018, renovation plan proposal includes the removal of the current concrete roof over the steps, removal of the current steps and ramp in order to build a public-friendly entrance extension at ground level going out toward the curb in which a foyer, public bathrooms, new steps and handicap ramp, which would lead to the business office and council chambers, would be built. The new ground level foyer would also feature an upper level glass dormer to provide natural light.

In my opinion, these plans are frivolous; what I call unnecessary “fluff and stuff,” which add to the costs. Why not fix the current steps and ramp, paint the concrete awning, and put the foyer/waiting room and public bathrooms just inside the former police department door where there is already a nice big window for natural light?

What will the city do with the current City Hall building if they do purchase and renovate another building? Sell it to the Railroad Museum for a mere pittance like they sold the old library for “over $1,000, but under $3,000” to a private individual to make it into studio apartments and cultural center? Or tear it down to build a bigger fire station to house a new ladder truck?

Now, as for the city streets. Are they in bad shape? ABSOLUTELY! Just ask me. I have one chuck-full of potholes right in front of my house.

As per the Fox Engineering firm’s presentation/proposal prior to the April 8, 2019, council meeting, the price tag just for one or two blocks of 12th Ave. NE getting fixed has five cost options ranging from $980,000 to $1,880,000. The top cost has the longest-time duration of 25 to 30 years. The lowest cost has the longevity rating of two to five years. With that being said, the proposed cost of $745,000 to complete the current City Hall renovations is only 39.6 % of the high-end costs/longevity to replace just one to two blocks of 12th Ave. NE. So in my opinion, the “street repairs excuse” some people are using to nix the current City Hall renovation project doesn’t pass the smell test.

So, finally, in closing, the city is once again for the third time, strongly researching and exploring the option of abandoning their initial commitment to remodel the current City Hall building by considering the purchase of another building downtown, which would require more architecture plans and cost, renovation and decorating to suit city administrative “needs.” Or should I say “wants”? Will they be able to do this for under the $745,000? I don’t think so.

What about the costs they have already paid to partially renovate the current City Hall Building? Is that just taxpayers “chump change” thrown away? Considering the quotes from Fox Engineering to replace the one to two blocks of 12th Ave NE, the $745,000 to complete the current City Hall renovations is a bargain.

As an update, the council has decided not to purchase another building. They are also leaning toward not funding the presented extreme renovation plan; with the notion of waiting two years to build a brand new building. In my opinion, this play is totally absurd. The extreme renovation play displayed at the May 13, 2019, council meeting could be scaled back considerably to bring down the costs; to do a remodel as opposed to a gut and move of the council chambers and vault, an added conference room and seven individual offices. Do away of the champagne taste on a beer pocketbook.