Now is not the time to be thinking about a new South Portland City Hall. There are more pressing priorities for city capital expenditures, especially given the current economic conditions:
• The high school renovation issue has worked its way to the top of the priority list. I now believe we need to focus on this issue before our young families lose confidence in our secondary educational facilities and decide to move when the real estate market improves. I hope the building committee pares down their “all-or-nothing” approach and sends us something taxpayers can swallow without choking.
• The next priority is the public works facility. We need to move that facility to one more appropriate for truck traffic and future expansion. I’m not sure of the details for the proposed area at Highland Avenue, but I just hope it is not backing up to another residential neighborhood that will suffer the same issues as the Meeting House Hill neighborhood.
Regarding some of the points made by councilors who support a new City Hall at 100 Waterman Drive, as well as that building’s developer:
• There’s the used car salesman’s pitch “I wouldn’t wait too long, I’ve had a lot of interest in this baby but it’s just perfect for you and this deal won’t be around forever.” This may be perceived to be a bargain now (though the building is empty and no one has even stated the price), but we can’t afford it at any price if we need to make a commitment when we have more pressing needs.
The questions seem to be in reverse order, at least from the public’s perception: Do we need a new City Hall? Is now the right time? Where should it be? It seems we are trying to answer the third without getting input from enough citizens on either of the first two. I have yet to talk with anyone who thinks we should have a new City Hall right now, aside from a few current councilors and one former councilor.
• Condition of the current City Hall: “We may need a new roof and furnace.” That’s called maintenance. It’s what one does when one owns property. There was no mention of operating-cost savings by having better insulation on the roof and a more efficient boiler. A former councilor who originally wanted a new City Hall at the armory complained that the basement of the current City Hall is moldy and can only be used for storage. I’ve attended at least six meetings in the basement conference room this year and didn’t smell any mold.
• “City departments are under multiple roofs and it would be more efficient to house them under one roof.” We no longer communicate predominately face to face: we do much of our work electronically. I don’t hear anyone complaining because they have to go to one building for one service and a different building for another.
• The building at 100 Waterman Drive “is a bare floor now so we get to build it out the way we want.” That is a plus with any building for any use if you need it, and if you can afford it. Not withstanding the arguments concerning revenue shortage, I’d like to see hard numbers from an independent source no matter which facility is considered, not just an estimate from a real estate broker with a vested interest in the sale. How much per square foot would a complete fit-out cost, including all utility wiring? How much would operating costs be? The proposal is for three floors out of four; is the developer paying an equal quarter for the remaining vacant floor?
• “The city manager’s report estimated the value of the current City Hall complex to be $1.6 million.” Did he get that from the broker at 100 Waterman Drive? It’s easy to inflate numbers when you’re sitting around the pickle barrel. You may not get the cash you hope for to pay for that bargain.
• Mahoney Middle School: I’m not up to speed on the middle school situation, but the location of this building keeps it within our “city center.” If and when it becomes available, there appears to be plenty of room for the city departments and perhaps space to sub-let until growth requires more.
• Taxes: 100 Waterman Drive is on the tax rolls, Mahoney and the current City Hall are not. I hear the argument made that the current City Hall would most likely become private, taxable property. This sounds like the armory. The argument was made that we might need it for a new City Hall, but could easily sell it if we decided not to, plus we can control a site that appears important as one of the main gateways to the city. Well, we decided not to put City Hall there (thank goodness) and just a few weeks ago we had to admit that we would most likely never see anything close to the $600,000 spent. We ought to stick to zoning, TIFs, grants and other methods to steer or encourage development.
Dan Hogan lives on E Street in South Portland.