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No more fighting city hall

Tiffin council narrowly approves building contract

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader

TIFFIN– The deal is finally sealed for Tiffin’s new city hall.
At last week’s council meeting on Sept. 25, the Tiffin City Council voted 3-2 to award a contract to City Construction Group of Iowa City in the amount of $382,700 to construct a new city hall. The 2,560 square foot building will be located near the intersections of Ireland Avenue, Railroad Street and College Street, and will house city administrative offices and city council chambers. Additionally, the city will be able to rent out the new council chambers as a community room for personal events like baby showers, Scout events, graduations, and other occasions.
The space has been a long time coming.
The city office is currently housed in a cinderblock building that used to be the city’s water plant office. Initially, the site was to be a temporary location for city hall when it was moved out of the Tiffin fire department building. Six years later, the single room is insufficient to accommodate the daily business of the state’s fastest growing community. City Administrator Michon Jackson and her staff have no room to put even one more file cabinet, so the tiny office is stacked with papers. There is no meeting space and no table for developers to spread out plans or maps.
The council has debated the location of a new city hall building since last fall, after the city purchased property on the town’s former meat locker site and demolished the old building there. The purchase coincided with the council’s determination that a new city hall building was needed.
That’s about the only point they have unanimously agreed upon since.
After researching options for locating a new city hall, the old locker site emerged as a favorite for Tiffin Mayor Steve Berner and a couple of council members. But not everyone favored the location. City councilor Royce Phillips, concerned about the old locker property’s location in a flood plain, proposed building a combined city hall and recreation center at Tiffin City Park. Council member Peggy Upton was not convinced it was a spending priority, based on the number of major projects still in the works. Ideas of leasing an existing building or repurposing an old building were also tossed around. Finally, the council prioritized a list of capital improvements in October 2012, and a new city hall fell fifth on the list of nine most immediate needs.
It took until April for the city to hire Vantage Point, L.L.C. Architectural Services of Cedar Rapids to design a one-story slab building, yet its location was still not set in stone.
After more debate and delays, Berner was able to confirm a flood mitigation plan for the locker property, by bringing in dirt to raise the lot’s elevation and make it buildable, at an estimated cost of $10,000.
The flood prevention plan did not make councilor Royce Phillips any more comfortable, according to comments offered in an email last week.
“While the foundation can be built up above this level, there were other, better locations we could have gone,” Phillips said. Even if it were not in a flood plain it is surrounded by houses, including (those of) the two most vocal supporting councilors, virtually across the street, and the mayor’s barely a block away. This seems to me to be more for their convenience than for the benefit of the town.”
Phillips’ suggestion of building a combined recreation center/city hall was precluded by one of two state grants that limits Tiffin to building only recreational structures at that site, according to city administration. Still, Phillips maintains, that concept was in the approved 2009 Land Use Plan.
“(It) calls for the city hall to be part of a complex on the northwest corner of the ball fields… including a community building, recreation center, and aquatic center, similar to the complex in North Liberty, adding a city hall.
“The mayor doesn’t like this plan and has delayed action on it from the very beginning,” Phillips said.
Another location option came in an even-up land swap offer made by developers of Prairie Trail West residential subdivision to be located on Highway 6 just west of CCA High School. In May, that proposal was voted down 3-2; the same result of just about every vote taken in the process to move forward on the proposed city hall.
Jackson said city staff members are excited and eager to start the project.
“We have definitely outgrown our current facility. It will be great that we can house all of our council meetings and events on-site,” said Jackson. “The growth the city is experiencing warrants such an expansion and will make it a better experience and more convenient when visiting.”
Jackson said the city will hold an open house in the spring, once construction is completed, for everyone to come and visit the facility and take a tour.
Mayor Berner said he was equally pleased the project is moving forward, but frustrated that it has taken so long.
“We have desperately needed a larger city hall for nearly 15 years, and especially the past six years. The current city hall was meant to be a six-month temporary location almost seven years ago,” Berner said. “A new city hall was probably the highest priority in my initial campaign for mayor in 2011. Yet, as mayor, it still took almost two years of pushing the council to get a new city hall approved, and (it will still be) another four to five months before it will be in use.”
And according to the city’s financial advisor Jeff Heil of Northland Securities, Tiffin’s financial position is one of the best in the state, Berner added.
“It should not be this difficult to approve a desperately needed, obviously non-controversial project. I am excited for several reasons. This new city hall will provide adequate space for city employees for many years to come, with conference space for meetings, and finally our own council chambers which doubles as a community room with a kitchen,” Berner said.
Berner also said it will benefit the community.
“This building is an excellent use of taxpayer funds, and the citizens of Tiffin can be proud of this city hall,” Berner concluded. “It is modest with great use of space, but still a very nice looking structure with high visibility on the new Ireland Avenue.”
Still, Phillips remains unconvinced.
“To summarize my feelings, I guess I would say I believe the city has made another big mistake,” Phillips said.