With city officials in Tower beginning to take a closer look at blight in the community, perhaps it’s time they look a little closer to home. Anyone paying attention is no doubt aware that Tower’s City Hall is in serious need of maintenance and repair.
Decorative wood siding is rotted from top-to-bottom in many cases, and the paint is either peeling or entirely missing. The rest of the building is suffering from peeling paint as well. The old wooden entrance doors are in desperate need of replacement. The curb is uneven and broken in front of city hall, which is making access more difficult for elderly residents. Perhaps most egregious was the condition of the front concrete steps, which were finally fixed after years of significant liability to the city, but the council missed a golden opportunity to fix the street gutter at the same time.
This isn’t the way to maintain a city hall, and the council must accept the responsibility for the current condition of the building.
For too long, the city has failed to maintain city hall because certain city officials are lobbying for a new one. I attend a lot of meetings at city hall and opportunities to disparage the current city offices are rarely missed by certain individuals. The litany of complaints includes having too few electrical outlets, having old and inefficient windows, high utility costs, or having council chambers that are too small.
These are all issues to be sure, and they could all be addressed for far less than the cost of building a new city hall. New windows are available for sale and could be installed. The electrical service could be upgraded and expanded, with surface-mounting of new outlets to avoid having to drill through the city hall’s concrete interior walls. The council chambers are too small, and that is a tougher issue to solve. But for the one or two meetings a year when a hot issue overfills the council chamber, the council can hold their meeting at the civic center. They’ve done it before.
What would it cost to upgrade the facilities at city hall? No one knows, because the city council has never inquired. Any suggestion to consider the issue is quickly shot down, typically because of an oft-repeated misstatement that the city faces a massive legal liability by leasing to a bar and liquor store on the building’s ground floor.
The facts on that issue say otherwise, and such inaccurate claims by public officials are inappropriate, regardless of the motivation.
As anyone who has lived in Tower a long time is well aware, the ground floor of city hall has hosted a bar and liquor store for more than half a century without it being an issue. For years, it was municipally-owned, but the city got out of the business about 30 years ago, due to the high insurance costs and limited profitability.
Since then, the city has leased the space to a private operator, thereby transferring the legal liability and high insurance costs to the leaseholder.
In the past ten years, the city has apparently had one payout on a claim from an individual who had patronized the bar and later tripped in a small depression in the adjacent city-owned parking lot, breaking her ankle. But the liability stemmed from the condition of the city-owned parking lot, not from the location of the bar inside the city hall building itself. And the city faces that kind of liability from one end of town to the other. If someone stumbles out of another bar in town and trips over a curb that the frost has heaved, or face plants on the uneven sidewalks, the city could face the same liability, particularly if the situation reflects a degree of negligence. Cities deal with these kinds of claims all the time. It comes with the territory, and the location or age of city hall makes no difference at all.
Besides, if it truly were an issue, the city could simply terminate its lease with the bar operators and find a lower risk tenant. You don’t need to move city hall.
If supporters of a new city hall want to make their case, make it on legitimate grounds. If advocates of new offices believe that heating costs are too high in the current city hall, have an energy audit done to look at ways to address the problem and explore the cost-benefit of possible solutions. In doing so, the council will actually have facts to work with, not exaggerations or misleading claims. At the same time, determine whether city hall replacement is a critical need, versus a want, and prioritize accordingly. By neglecting to gather such facts and perspective, the council is operating in the dark— and that rarely leads to sound decision-making.
It could be that once the council has examined all of the relevant information that it will decide it makes sense to build a new city hall, for legitimate reasons. If so, then it will have greater confidence in its decision, along with a valid case to make to city taxpayers who would ultimately pay for it. Until the city has the facts, however, any decision on a city hall is premature.
But please don’t mistake this as a call for inaction. The council’s unwillingness to undertake basic maintenance of city hall is embarrassing, and certainly doesn’t reflect well on a community that is currently seeking to enhance its Main Street and address blight. That city hall is now part of the community’s blight problem should prompt the council to act. At a minimum, it’s time to start maintaining the building again— that’s a basic responsibility. Once that’s done, the city council can weigh the merits of a new facility versus renovating, or simply living, with the existing city hall. One thing’s for sure— simply doing nothing is no longer an option.