As the city staff urges the Columbia City Council to schedule a public hearing on a planned $21 million expansion and renovation of the Daniel Boone City Building, a majority of council members say they support moving ahead on the project without a public vote.
In a 15-page report to the council released Friday, City Manager Bill Watkins uses a 2002 consultant’s report on city government space needs in an effort to make the case that the project is necessary. The study, by Chiodini Associates, says the council is nearly 30,000 square feet short of the office space it will need by 2020.
The renovation and expansion is “the most cost-effective means of meeting future city space needs,” the report concludes.
Watkins has repeatedly cited the need to renovate the Boone Building, noting that employees in the basement have endured concrete falling from the ceiling and that “many employees complain about the presence of mold and other irritants.” Watkins’ report mentions that the outside of the former hotel “does little to signify that it is an official government building.”
Expanding the structure would also improve government operations, the report argues.
“City administrative offices should be in a ‘Municipal Center,’ preferably one structure or a cluster of structures in close proximity to each other for operational efficiency and coordination between departments,” the report reads.
City staff is asking the council to schedule a public hearing. Third Ward Councilman Bob Hutton, Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe agree with Mayor Darwin Hindman, who expressed strong sentiment against putting the project on the ballot during the council retreat in June.
“I don’t think there is a need to put it to a vote because I think that there is the documented need for space,” Loveless said. “There is the funding source identified to pay for it, and I think these are the kinds of decisions that council people are elected to make.”
“No, I don’t think we should,” Hutton said in reference to a public vote, adding that the city has renovated the Howard and Gentry buildings without putting it on the ballot. “I think we’ve put together a good financing plan and we’re ready to go with it.”
Members of Grass Roots Organizing, the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom have been circulating a petition that says, “Shouldn’t Columbians have the right to vote on our city hall?” The groups plan to present the petition at a public hearing tentatively scheduled for late August or early September.
Special sales taxes to finance the city hall project failed twice at the polls in the 1990s. City staff hopes to finance the project this time using certificate of participation bonds that require no public vote. The bonds would be paid off over 20 years using rental fees paid by city departments that would be housed in the building.
The city pays $208,337 in annual rent to private property owners.
“We’re renting a variety of spots and paying for those (spots) for different departments,” Hoppe said. “There’s a considerable cost savings over time. It’s sort of like renting versus owning your own home.”
Hoppe said it would be inefficient to have a public vote on every decision the council makes.
“We spend $300 million a year, that’s the city’s budget, and we don’t have a vote on everything that happens,” Hoppe said, “Certain things have to, by law, be voted upon, but this isn’t one of them.”
Fire Chief Bill Markgraf’s description of the building as a fire trap resonated with Hoppe and Loveless at the retreat.
“That was the first time that we had heard that,” Loveless said, adding that the fire chief’s comments, along with the staff’s presentation, convinced him that something needed to be done.
Markgraf “made it clear that it, the present building, is sort of a firetrap in a variety of ways,” Hoppe said. “There’s a lot of small areas where fire can travel easily from one floor to another.”
Hoppe said the building has other problems.
“It’s not very accessible in terms of elevators,” Hoppe said. “There’s some security concerns, too, in terms of having the whole building open for council meetings late at night, whereas in the new building you can put the council chambers on the first floor like the Boone County Government center has their commission chambers.”
Hoppe said the project also presents the opportunity to construct an environmentally friendly building.
Watkins has also resisted the idea of a public vote.
“It seems to me that the issue is two-fold: One, is this project needed? And (two), is this the best way to meet the needs? And I think the best way to do that is not with a vote, but with a public discussion,” he said. “To me, if the community feels that this is something that needs to be done, and we can all reach an agreement, why wait six to eight months to put it to a vote?”
Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku said he acknowledges the need to fix up and expand the Boone Building, but he would take no stance on whether a ballot issue is warranted.
First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton and Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser were contacted by the Missourian, but they didn’t return phone calls at the time of publication.