The answer to many of the flawed decisions surrounding the new City Hall construction project, which has gone $600 thousand over budget BEFORE one shovel of dirt was turned, is the “McLendon-Chisholm City Hall Committee.”
Councilman Patrick Short is on record stating that “he was not going to second guess what the committee has come up with.” To “second guess” means to look critically or question conclusions and isn’t that precisely what officials in city government are elected to do before charging forward to spend money and raise taxes?
Simply put, this seven-person assembly of hand-picked volunteers, chosen by the Mayor & City Council, was charged with the task of gathering information to aid the Council in its deliberation to build a new city hall. However, what the written record demonstrates is that those who were elected to make decisions that represent the will of the people capitulated to the expertise of a non-elected, and thereby unaccountable few.
One cannot escape how this committee is the tail that wagged the proverbial dog after one compares their recommendations to what has actually materialized.
Though its makeup was not structured to include people with experience or expertise in municipal construction, planning, or even commercial/government building, the basis of our critique is not intended to cast aspersions on, or attempt to impugn, the character of those who served.
Instead, our focus is centered on what has proven to be misguided and ill-advised recommendations that the Mayor & Council appears to have taken whole cloth as consecrated certitude, memorialized in the written record of a three and a half hour workshop held on the morning of June 8, 2013.
Here’s a breakdown of what you’ll read…
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Not “IF,” but WHAT to build…and move fast!
The record reflects from the beginning the Committee’s unyielding mindset was to “focus on a new city hall,” urging the Council not to “let details get in the way of vision.” “The City Hall will be the heart of the city,” says one Committee member whose pointed remarks are found peppered throughout the record urging the Council “not to lose focus on needing a new City Hall.” The repeated drum beat of this member includes statements like, “give strong consideration and move forward,” and “City Council needs to approve the concept then the next step would be the details and approving final design.” Another member adds “the sooner the better.”
Six months later, the plan was in full swing as the Council approved the debt-bond to move forward!
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A vision for a population growth to 22,000.
As part of its mission, the Committee was “to develop a vision that would accommodate growth,” which was based on an established-projected “population build out for the city [of] 22,000;” that’s 20 thousand more people than today.
This unsettling population projection fore-shadows the Council’s 30 year city plan that is supposed to be revealed before year’s end.
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The push to purchase more property.
While it is not included in the record, during last week’s August 27 town hall meeting the committee chair emphasized how every city that they met with encouraged them to purchase whatever property they could now, while it is still available. According to the presentation that night, one city paid three times the amount for property that, had the city planners been more thoughtful and visionary, could have been available ad ready for the city’s continued growth.
At the time of the June 8 workshop, the city had already purchased three acres and were gifted two for a total of five acres as the result of a compromise among Council members who had objected to purchasing thirteen acres, which would have resulted in fifteen total.
The Committee unflinching recommendation was to move froward in “purchasing the additional ten acres of land and do it now.” The record reflects that their vision for that extra land included “city parks, baseball fields, pavilion and eventually a public safety department.”
There is no reference in the record to the comparison of city standards in relation to MC, where ours is “supposed to be” 1.5 acre homesteads, meaning that most homeowners already have a “park” in their own back yard. Also missing from the record is any mention in the record if the five acres already acquired could have accommodated a city hall, fire station and public safety department, but based on these recommendations, it appears that they believe that five acres was not enough.
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Pies in the sky.
The Committee Chair also pointed out that “there are rebate programs to help offset some cost,” but no details are included nor is there anything to indicate that the city has followed through on these opportunities.
At the recommendation of Councilman Hatfield, the city did, at one point, look into possible grant funding but the City Manager reported that MC did not qualify.
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Estimated cost to build: $150 per/sqft.
The Committee chair estimated that the cost to build “would be about $150 per square feet, ” adding that “you have to stay on top of the project.”
However, before the project even began, the cost surged from $1.5 million to $2.125 million for a five thousand square ft facility. The actual cost per square ft obviously missed the committee’s projections.
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The genesis of the Council’s shift from a low-tax mindset.
Discussions centered on both a 7 and 10 year financing solution, neither of which would raise taxes. Councilman Lovell stated that “the only way to be successful is with the citizens’ support and by not raising taxes.” Councilman Pullen wanted to make sure that “we know how we are going to take care of our obligation. Councilman Hatfield expressed his feelings that “it is their responsibility to care for the health and welfare of the city,” adding that, “their charge is to hold the tax rate at $0.0975.
However, both Mayor Moody & Councilman Short began their assault on the “low-tax standards” expressed by their counterparts. Mayor Moody says that “the city will see more retail as rooftops come,” followed by Councilman Short who “wants to look at the tax rate based on future needs,” asking, “how long can the city exist at the current tax rate?” Moody urged the council to “consider the future for public service officers,” adding that he is “not for more taxes but how long can the city last?” Short stated that he “doesn’t want to be sitting five years from now wishing they would have raised taxes due to failing to plan, and/or a bad economy, putting the City into a position like it faced in 2009 where there was not enough revenue to sustain the city without implantation of an ad valorem tax and thus the potential of being taken in by surrounding cities and the city of MC ceasing to exist.”
What causes the most pause around the discussion about the city’s future and not getting caught up in a financial mess without the ability to keep the city’s lights on is the lack of recognition that the primary purpose of the workshop was centered on a structure that would become a financial burden to the city without establishing a real need for a new City Hall.
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Hook, line, & sinker.
The record reflects that Mayor Moody further qualified the Committee’s recommendations by parroting their conclusions, expressing his feelings that “City Council must acquire the additional acreage, commit to building a new City Hall, advertise for Request for Qualifications, and bring back recommendations on financing.”
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Keeping unknowing taxpayers in the dark.
It was the Committee who dismissed Councilman Short’s suggestion that steps be made to begin informing citizens and getting early input by holding a town hall meeting. “The committee feels that city council needs ultimately to make the decision because they have the benefit of the discussions and the citizens do not.” In the face of objections by the Council the committee’s recommendation prevailed to “get the cost first and final design, then have a town hall meeting,”
Taxpayers were informed at a poorly attended (60 people) town hall meeting after the design had been established & the cost had been determined to be $1.5 million. Just a few months later, without any notice to citizens, the project was approved for $2.125 million, though we have no reason to believe that the committee played any role in this decision. With the exception of Gary Lovell who voted against the motion (& Jerry Klutts who was not yet elected), the credit for this decision falls completely on the Mayor & Council.
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Not all the recommendations were bad.
The failure to “plan for maintenance and expansion” was the biggest mistake noted by the Committee Chair. He sated, “You must plan for costs for maintenance and operation.”
It was the Committees design concept of a ranch style structure that could better accommodate growth and expansion that was adopted by the Council.