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Jacksonville council nixes survey request

JACKSONVILLE — The City Council Tuesday rejected a resident's request to include in city utility bills a survey asking residents to rate the importance of upgrading the former Jackson County Courthouse versus ensuring a seismically safe fire station.

Hal McAlister proposed a nine-question survey that would rank people's views on public safety priority, concern over the fire station's ability to withstand an earthquake, use of the courthouse by the city, willingness to use taxpayer funds and other issues.

"If I'm asking anything, it's that the city spend $75 to hear from the public," McAlister told the council. He and others were prepared to cover the expense if necessary.

Mayor Paul Becker has urged that the 1883 courthouse be considered as a potential City Hall site. The city received the courthouse and other buildings from Jackson County a year ago. City officials are determining how much money would be needed to transform the courthouse.

"It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that they are going to move into the courthouse," McAlister said before the meeting.

Concerns about an earthquake's impact on the firehouse at 180 N. Third St. have been voiced for more than 10 years. McAlister noted before the meeting that the Jacksonville Review raised the need for a seismically safe firehouse in its October edition, pitting it against courthouse renovations.

Council members voted 6-0 against the survey proposal, citing establishment of a precedent, seeming endorsement by the city of question content, lack of scrutiny of the questions and other means of getting public feedback as reasons.

"How do you evaluate the results when it is done?" Councilman Dan Winterburn asked.

Councilwoman Jocie Wall said she liked the idea of getting public comment, but questioned whether the utility bill mailing was an appropriate avenue.

"Your questions seem to imply a choice: firehouse or courthouse," said Becker.

"We haven't made a firm commitment on anything," said Councilman Paul Hayes. "You are doing this as if we made a choice."

After the meeting, McAlister said he would meet with friends to see whether they will pursue a survey on their own. But he maintained that the council has prejudged the issue.

"They don't want to hear it to start with," said McAlister.

City officials have said a decision on the courthouse will come after further studies. A preliminary study suggested it would cost nearly $1 million to upgrade the building to become city offices and include a public space on the second floor.

City Administrator Jeff Alvis said he hopes that engineering studies of the courthouse's seismic needs and a master plan for its development will be available before the end of the year.

In other business, the council:

  • Approved moving the Planning Department from City Hall, where it has 220 square feet of space, to the Hanley Building on the courthouse campus, where it will have more than 1,000 square feet. The move will allow hiring of an already budgeted, half-time employee.
  • On a split 4-2 vote, approved including Jacksonville in a May 2014 election to establish a special library district in Jackson County. Hayes and Winterburn voted against the measure.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.