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Crumbling ceiling points to city hall needs

Watkins said repair funds won’t be new taxes
Friday, February 17, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:16 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

One day Danny Paul was walking into his office when he noticed a chunk of concrete had fallen from above and was resting on the floor.

It wasn’t the sky that was falling but the basement ceiling of the Daniel Boone City Building. Paul called building maintenance, and the workers that arrived found several more large chunks about to fall — enough to fill a nearby trash can.

The crumbling concrete has forced employees of the city’s Information Services Department to relocate and city officials to re-evaluate their timeline for renovating — and eventually expanding — City Hall.

The basement of City Hall extends about 15 feet south beneath the sidewalk along Broadway. Whenever it rains, water slowly seeps through cracks in the concrete and drips onto the ceiling tiles in the Information Services help desk room. The water causes support bars in the concrete to rust, and ceiling tiles frequently must be replaced.

Information Services Director Robert Simms said the water never caused extensive damage to computers or office supplies, but it has forced his department to work around the problem. Workers always place expensive equipment on the other side of the room, and they use a metal pan balanced atop a large cooler to catch the dripping water.

City officials have long been aware of the water problem. Every couple of years, crews resurface the sidewalk, Simms said, but the water keeps coming back.

When maintenance employees discovered how loose the concrete in the basement ceiling had become, they explored further and found some sizable fragments resting on tiles above or near employee desks. The Information Services staff and other officials evaluated the danger to employees and asked structural engineers at Allstate Consultants to assess the damage and suggest options for correcting it. After taking core samples from the ceiling, engineers suggested the help desk be moved to another area.

The room was an important hub for Information Services. To accommodate the extra computers, office supplies and two employees, the staff reorganized an adjacent room — sending six programmers to the basement of the finance annex and clearing a storage space.

“It took awhile to move,” Paul said. “It was more difficult to accomplish work.”

The move also put in perspective the lack of space available to many city departments.

“We have ongoing needs and not enough space,” Public Communications Officer Robert Ross said.

Voters in the 1990s twice rejected ballot issues that would have provided money to renovate and expand City Hall. But City Manager Bill Watkins said it’s time to bring the issue back to the City Council, which discussed the matter briefly last week. Watkins said he hadn’t planned on revisiting the discussion so soon, but he’s come to recognize its urgency and importance.

“We need to spend some extensive maintenance money on this building,” Watkins said.

It cost $1.3 million to convert the Boone Building, a former hotel, into office space after the city bought it in the late 1970s. About 20 years later, the city spent another $900,000 to bring the building into compliance with fire codes, to improve air conditioning and to remodel offices. The lobby received a $100,000 face-lift in 1997.

In September 2000, the Downtown Complex Space Need Committee investigated city government’s need for office space. It concluded that buildings in use provide inadequate square footage and that city facilities were generally in poor condition, Third Ward Councilman Bob Hutton said. Consultants backed the committee, saying the city could use significant amounts of new space.

“What we got is still in bad shape, and it’s getting worse,” Hutton said.

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Water damages pipes and causes concrete to fall in the Daniel Boone City Building.

The lack of space has forced the city to find alternatives downtown. “We’re renting a significant amount of space for a substantial amount of money,” Hutton said.

The city is making progress on improving the buildings it has. It is in the midst of extensive renovations on the Howard Building, which normally houses Municipal Court. The Gentry Building, home to the Parks and Recreation Department, and the Police Department building are next in line.

“They’re each separate projects, but they have to be reviewed together when addressing space needs,” Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless said.

Back at City Hall, the crumbling basement ceiling isn’t the only concern. Creaking windows and a heating and air conditioning system that continues to be faulty are in need of major work. Few city workers get their own offices. Rather, they’re crammed into cubicles with little room for more than a desk and miscellaneous stacks of paperwork.

“We’re constantly in the repair mode,” Watkins said.

Instead of going back to voters with proposed tax increases, Watkins said, the city will use money from existing funds to fix up City Hall. He believes building maintenance should become a regular part of the city’s budget, eliminating the reliance upon ballot issues and tax increases.

“The citizens gave us a resource, which is this building, and we have a stewardship to keep it in good condition,” Watkins said.

City officials for the past few years have been setting aside $700,000 per year for building projects, an amount they had previously spent each year to pay off bonds. Before any major work is done on City Hall, however, Loveless said the council should hold public hearings. While a conceptual drawing of a larger City Hall already exists, the city eventually would have to hire an architect to draft detailed plans.

As building work continues, departments such as Information Services will have to endure temporary displacement and relocation. Until the basement space can be permanently fixed, Simms’ staff prefers not to return. Current accommodations might be slightly crowded, but they’re workable.

“There is going to be a lot of shuffling around until things can be completed,” Simms said, adding that “the city doesn’t have a lot of space to lose. My department was lucky to have some extra room.”


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