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Economy could leave Poulsbo city hall idling

Council disapproves attempts to lessen building’s size.

POULSBO — The city of Poulsbo is continuing with plans to build a $16.9 million city hall despite the requests of two council members to consider less costly options.

During a Monday night workshop on the project council members Linda Berry-Maraist and Becky Erickson both prompted alternatives to the current construction plan, which will seat a four-story, 30,000 square foot building at the corner of Third Avenue and Moe Street downtown.

The discussion resulted in Erickson removing herself from the project’s coordinating team, but didn’t lead to a change in building plans.

At Wednesday night’s city council meeting project manager Gary Tusberg said the city will move forward, though the project as a whole is now waiting out the volatile financial market. The city was scheduled to go out for debt one week after the Dow Jones crashed, and is now looking for interest rates to decrease before securing a needed $9.5 million in bonds.

Finances were a major topic discussed Monday; city finance director Debbie Booher said the project is on a “wait-and-see basis.” The city was recently given an AA bond rating, but must act on it within 60 to 90 days. Enough cash flow has been stored to get through December if needed, Booher said.

Council Member Ed Stern said the markets could potentially put the project on hold for a year or longer. He’s made assurances that the project is one the city can afford, but noted the impact the fragile economy has, and said after current preparations the construction site may be buttoned down until the financial market settles.

Erickson, who works in finance, referenced the city’s revenues and questioned its ability to afford building to such a capacity.

“Bottom line, we have increased costs of operations and I’m seeing static revenue for the next couple years,” she said.

One alternative discussed featured the Poulsbo Police Department and public works employees being included in the new city hall, allowing the city two additional properties to sell to mitigate the building’s costs. The police department would fill space allocated for future growth temporarily, then eventually vacate the space for its own campus.

Police Chief Dennis Swiney reminded the council of the unique needs the department has, including space for its vehicles, a secure entrance and room to store evidence. Situating the department in the new city hall would also mean a restructuring of its current interior planning. The city council chambers most likely would have to double as a courtroom.

Council Member Kim Crowder spoke against the idea, citing the police station’s recent $34,000 renovation. Also brought into play was the current real estate market and the difficulty the city could have in obtaining full value for any of its planned land sales. Currently three parcels are on the market to help pay for the building, one of them being eyed by Harrison Medical Center as the site for its new cancer care campus.

Crowder also challenged Berry-Maraist’s suggestion of building only to the city’s current needs. She said adding on to the building in the future would cost more in the long run.

Berry-Maraist, an architect, outlined three different schemes, two of which would see the building constructed in phases. One option would reduce the building size a level, and another would decrease its spacial footprint by about 7,000 square feet.

Berry-Maraist addressed the rising costs of wages and benefits, and expressed concern that an expensive city hall could result in staff firings in order to pay for the new digs. Layoffs would also mean decreased service levels, she said.

“Can we as a city, in this economy at this time, build this building?” she asked. The current cost, she calculated, shakes out to $566 per square foot.

“That’s a lot of money,” she said. “We’re not building a very efficient office space.”

In response, Council Member Dale Rudolph contended, “We’re not building an office space, we’re building a city hall.”

Ultimately five of the seven council members gave the project’s size and scope a go ahead nod, noting it necessary so the city can function in the building for 50 years. A redesign, representatives of Lewis Architects said, would’ve added another three months and more costs to the project.

After discussion wrapped, Erickson announced her resignation from the project planning team.

“This is my last attempt at influencing it,” she said. “In good conscience I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be involved any longer.”

Poulsbo Mayor Kathryn Quade said she will continue to look for ways to countervail the building’s costs, and expects to have more information on the sales of city property in the coming weeks.

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