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Editorial: City Hall angst

Former Rossland City Hall building, March 5, 2018. Photo by Sara Golling

Citizens have opinions about the planned mid-town housing development, with a new City hall on the ground floor — some for, some against. Here’s an effort to make the whole thing easier to understand.  

Readers who want to check materials available on the  City’s website can click on the City’s ad on the left-hand side of this page.  That will open the City’s website in a new tab; on the left-hand side of the City’s page, you will see a heading, “MID-TOWN HOUSING PROJECT” and immediately below that, a button inviting you to “CLICK HERE FOR INFO.”  Readers who click there can find several documents, including a lengthy Q&A explainer, a Transportation Study and the Geotechnical Report. There may be new documents added from time to time.  

First, let's summarize a few things.  

The facts so far:

     1.        A defective glu-lam beam in the old city hall building collapsed in the winter of 2018.

     2.       The collapse released asbestos fibres into the building, and required extensive haz-mat clean-up.   Every item in the building had to be individually cleaned to ensure that it could safely be used again.

     3.       The roof of the old City Hall had been designed and built to withstand a snow load nearly twice the weight of the load under which the defective beam collapsed.

     4.       Rossland’s City Hall is now located in rented premises – an ongoing expense.

     5.       Negotiations with the City’s insurer are also ongoing.

     6.       The City is planning to use the ground floor of a new housing development at the former Emcon lot as a new City Hall.

     7.       The estimated cost of the City’s share of the building is, at present, approximately three million dollars.

     8.       To cover that cost, the City plans to use insurance funds, some capital reserve funds, and funds from the sale of surplus city-owned properties such as the old City Hall building.

     9.       Rossland taxpayers will not be paying for the housing development.

City staff and council members have expressed the following facts and opinions:

     A.      The old City Hall was too small to accommodate the staff that a growing city requires.  Offices were cramped and crowded.

     B.      The old City Hall did not have adequate storage space for the hard-copy documents the City is legally required to keep, and these documents are now stored in ten different places, which is not a good situation.

     C.       The council chamber in the old City Hall was too small to accommodate more than a very few members of the public at one time – this made it difficult for Council meetings to be truly open to the public, as they are legally required to be, except for limited “in camera” sessions.

     D.      The HVAC systems in the old City Hall did not function well at all, causing discomfort and poor working conditions.

     E.       A new City Hall will enable the City to accommodate adequate staffing levels comfortably, ensure that the HVAC systems work properly, and to better attract and retain well-qualified staff members.

     F.       A new City Hall will have adequate storage space for the documentation that must be held in storage.

     G.      Three million dollars for an up-to-date City Hall is a good investment in Rossland’s future.

     H.      Based on current cost and funding estimates, Rossland taxpayers will NOT experience an increase in their tax burden to fund the building of the commercial/city hall portion of the project.

     I.         The cost of the new City Hall premises will not affect the work planned for the arena building and mechanical systems.  Staff and council members state that the proposed city hall development will not detrimentally affect any current or future plans for ANY of the services, amenities or facilities presently enjoyed by the members of the community.  All City facilities are part of the City’s Asset Management Plan, and have separate reserves set aside to meet future needs.  This is not an “either or” situation.

     J.        The residential portion of the building will generate residential tax revenue for its life span, although that revenue will be somewhat lower for the first few years – from two to five. On this topic, Mayor Moore points out, “This project creates future ongoing revenue for the city that will grow the tax base, and help reduce the tax burden to current and future property owners.  In very simplistic terms, the greater the number of properties paying taxes, the less each property pays.” 

     K.       When the old City Hall building is sold, it, too, will generate new tax revenue.

Various citizens have made statements to the effect that:

i.           The old City Hall roof should have been shoveled, no matter how big a load it was supposed to bear, so -- blame;

ii.           Someone thinks maybe a bearing wall was removed at some point in the building’s distant past, so -- blame;

iii.           Rossland shouldn’t have a new City Hall because the arena is more important and should come first;

iv.           Three million dollars is far too much to pay for a new City Hall;

v.             City Hall ought to remain on the main drag, downtown;

vi.            The old City Hall building should be refurbished and maybe rebuilt, or a new storey added if it doesn’t have enough space in its current configuration – because maybe that wouldn’t  cost as much;

vii.           The City should hold a referendum on the question of a new City Hall.

First I’m going to address the first two “citizen statements” above: about shoveling and the rumoured removal of a bearing wall sometime a long time ago. 

Shoveling:  if you know the roof is holding snow to a total of 68 pounds per square foot, and you know the roof has been engineered to hold 128 pounds per square foot,  why would you pay staff good wages – taxpayer money -- to shovel it off unnecessarily?

Rumoured removal of a bearing wall:  if that did happen, and no one has provided evidence, it was a long time ago, and what’s the point of  bringing it up now -- who do we want to point our blaming fingers at, since whoever was responsible is long gone, and what would be the use of that blame?  Is someone going to pay for it?  Just asking.

The arena argument is just plain wrong, according to City staff and council members.  The arena has its own reserve fund and its own plan.  Funds must be spent for a more satisfactory City Hall somewhere, anyway, and they won’t come from the arena’s reserve fund.  Please re-read paragraph “I” above.

Referendum:  A referendum would cost taxpayers approximately  $12,000.  It would be required only if the City had to borrow money that would take more than  five years to pay back, and the City is not planning to borrow any money for this project.  City staff say, “Even if we spend 20% of our reserves, we will still have over seven million dollars left in our reserve funds for other projects anticipated in our Asset Management Plan.”

Refurbishing the damaged  City Hall building:  We don’t know how much it would cost to make the old building into an adequate facility, but it might be just as expensive as creating a new, purpose-designed City Hall on the ground floor of the housing development at the Emcon lot.   It could involve adding another storey, and an elevator, and we don’t know whether or not the foundation of the current structure is up to that extra burden.  Or it might involve decommissioning the Rossland swimming pool and extending the building over onto the lot it now occupies. Either scenario would likely involve  excavating, making a new foundation, paying an architect for a new design, paying for engineering services, paying for the new construction – and having no new housing project and no new taxation revenue.  All of that would be very expensive.  Just how expensive, we aren’t sure – we (the taxpayers) haven’t paid extra money for a study on it.

It’s too much to pay: see immediately above; also, paragraph “H” further up.  Mayor Kathy Moore says, “Because the City’s primary job is to provide services to its residents and visitors, there are not many situations where we can generate ongoing revenue by spending money on something.   Anytime we can create revenue, it’s cause for celebration.  Any option that resulted in a stand-alone city hall  would be a sunk cost that could only be replaced by additional taxation on current properties.  The option of building a new city hall as part of a housing development provides the taxpayers of Rossland with the best long-term value.”

Ought to remain downtown? City personnel think that the prime location of the old building is wasted on a City Hall, and hope it can be sold to some commercial enterprise to help pay for a new facility and generate new tax revenue. Currently that prime downtown location does not generate any taxes. Staff point out that it makes sense to have City Hall closer to the arena, the Youth Action Network, the skatepark and the public works yard, as City staff visit those locations regularly.

Yes, it  might take a while to sell the old building.  Time will tell.

One more point:  The housing development requires an occupant on the ground floor, or it can’t go forward.  So far, the City is the most suitable ground-floor occupant – in fact,  it’s the only potential occupant that has expressed serious interest.

Rossland could really use additional long-term rental spaces. According to some owners of local businesses, it’s too hard for service workers to find places to live, and that makes it hard for businesses to find workers.

My opinion?  I recognize some potential downsides of the new development and a new City Hall at the Emcon lot, but taking everything into consideration, conclude that it’s a worthwhile venture, and exciting, to boot.