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Committee: Rebuild onsite

The future of Ashland City Hall was discussed by the City Council Tuesday as a committee presented its report and recommendations, but no decision was made on the preferred path forward.

The 11-member citizens ad hoc committee was appointed to consider options in dealing with City Hall which, it has been determined by engineers, would not survive a serious seismic event, endangering the lives of 27 employees who work there, including the mayor, city administrator and the utility division.

“Every system in the building is failing. It would not withstand an earthquake,” committee chair Juli Di Chiro said of the building at 20 East Main Street on the Ashland Plaza.

In the end, Di Chiro told the council, the committee could not find total consensus on a plan to move or repair the building. Options considered included rebuilding City Hall on the current site; moving the current workers into the Community Development building on Winburn Way or the Grove building on East Main Street; acquiring the old Briscoe School from the school district; and building a brand new City Hall where there's now a public parking lot at Pioneer Street and Lithia Way.

The committee did not come to a unanimous conclusion, with eight recommending rebuilding City Hall on its current site and expanding it to allow for future staff needs; two recommended building a new City Hall at the Civic Center on East Main Street; and one recommended consolidating City Hall and Community Development (planning) staff at the old Briscoe School.

The staff recommendation was to request proposals for architectural services that would take a look at replacing or rebuilding City Hall at one of the three locations recommended by the committee at an estimated cost of about $80,000.

It's likely the city would rely on a bond issue to pay for the project. There would not be time, staff told the council, to prepare a bond measure for the spring 2018 ballot. The soonest would be the following spring.

It’s also not clear how much to request. The cost for a full remodel to create a bigger, seismically safe and accessible City Hall large enough to accommodate needs for years to come was put has been put at between $8.5 and 11.5 million dollars. The cost, however, to just retrofit the existing city hall and make it seismically up to snuff is much less.

Councilor Mike Morris got at the answer with a question to city staff, asking, “We have to do a seismic upgrade no matter what, right? So what is the cost of just doing that?”

The answer he received: $1.8 million dollars.

Moving City Hall to Briscoe school or to the Community Development Building at 51 Winburn Way or creating a whole new city hall, Morris argued, would not preclude spending the money to fix the old City Hall.

Mayor John Stromberg urged the council not to assume a bond’s passage, saying, “We have to remember that we have several bonds coming out at a time when government is getting more expensive.”

The city also needs a new Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to serve as a regional hub in case of disaster. Plans call for that to be  at the Ashland Police Department. The EOC was approved by the City Council in 2011 but has yet to break ground.

Staff had recommended the council approve putting a bond to cover the estimated $1 million cost of the EOC on the May 2018 ballot, but some councilors, including Traci Darrow, were concerned that moving forward on one improvement without determining how it ties into the bigger city space needs picture would not be advisable. “I would not be supportive in going out for a $1 million dollar bond in May for the EOC when we haven’t figured out where everyone would go," she said. "It feels like a one-off.”

Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara urged the council to consider the EOC on its own merits. ”The biggest threat we face is (an earthquake on) the Cascadia Subduction (Zone)," he said. "This single event we would have to deal with and the (current) EOC is not prepared,” he told the council, while gesturing to the outside wall of the council chambers where emergency responders would set up headquarters, saying it would most likely crack and fall in a major earthquake. “(A large earthquake is) already overdue. We’re playing with fire.”

The council collectively decided to bring the Emergency Operations Center back for further discussion at its next council meeting, including the possibility of requesting a bond to finance it.

As to the future of the old City Hall, the council decided to not to commission, for now, an architectural study, but to continue discussion of options at its future study sessions and possibly hold an executive session to consider the Briscoe School option. No date was set.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.