By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
TIFFIN– At the beginning of last week’s meeting, the Tiffin City Council gave tacit approval on a design for a new city hall.
But by the end of the meeting, the building’s location was once again in question, and the heated debate raged on, taking the council’s May 22 meeting to the four-hour mark.
After nine months of rigorous discussion, delayed action and deferred decisions about whether and where to build a new city hall, the group came to a consensus on a design proposed by Kim Schmidt of Vantage Point, L.L.C. Architectural Services of Cedar Rapids.
Schmidt presented initial drawings for a 2,560 sq. ft., one-story building, with an estimated cost of $300,000, and roughly $90,000 for the parking lot. The building would house city administrative offices and city council chambers, with some flexibility in its design to allow for community use or future expansion.
“The building is laid out so if you wanted to grow the building for more administrative space, you could do it and still stay within the property setback lines,” Schmidt told the council. “We know this is not the final city hall that Tiffin is going to have. As the city grows, this building could be used by the city for other functions, or be sold, or it can grow and have more space for city activities.”
The five council members gave unofficial consensus on the design, and directed Tiffin city administrator Michon Jackson to continue working with Schmidt to refine the details.
Implied in that consensus– at least for mayor Steve Berner and some of the council members– was that the new building would be located on the city’s old meat locker site, near the intersections of Ireland Avenue, Railroad Street and College Street. The city purchased the property and demolished the old locker building in 2011, when plans for expanding Ireland Avenue from Railroad Street north toward Highway 6 were in initial stages.
Over time, the old locker property came up for consideration as a possible city hall site, but councilor Peggy Upton had concerns about the land being in a flood plain, and council member Royce Phillips resisted the location as well; at one time, city officials had considered building a combined city hall and community center at the city’s east side recreation park, Phillips reminded them, but his request to revisit that proposal was met with obstacles because of state grant funding that limits how the park is used. Later, Upton argued the city had bonded money for other projects that were higher priority– especially street improvements– and she was concerned if those projects had cost overruns, spending money on a city hall would leave other projects without necessary funding.
After determining the site would be buildable with about $10,000 in earthwork to raise it out of the flood plain, and after numerous council discussions and a March work session to discuss it in depth, Jackson was given the green light for a three-person committee to interview architectural firms for a preliminary city hall design. On April 10, a contract with Vantage L.L.C. for $21,500 was approved 5-1.
But last Wednesday, it became apparent late in the meeting that Upton and Phillips still did not agree with the proposed location.
Phillips informed the council that developer Jim Glasgow, who plans to develop a residential subdivision just west of Clear Creek Amana (CCA) High School, had offered to do a land swap, giving the city a one-acre lot to construct a city hall in exchange for the locker site.
“I see no reason why we would not want to negotiate the possibility. I think it’s an obvious thing. The lot is worth more, it’s a bigger lot, it’s a better location; it’s a no brainer,” said Phillips.
Berner said the idea had been discussed at a previous work session, and he had some reasons why it was not the best option.
“The first one being the (street) access you would need from the school, and once the city owns the lot, we don’t want the responsibility to get that access from the school, and that will cost money,” Berner said.
Phillips said the arguments he heard against the land swap were not sound, in his opinion.
“I think it’s a slam dunk,” Phillips contended. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Upton said last week her concern about building city hall on the old locker site was tied to the still-unfinished Ireland Avenue extension.
“We bought that land to put Ireland Avenue through, and we don’t know what contingencies might come up,” Upton said. “What if we have to move Ireland 15 feet to the east for whatever reason, do we still have enough room to put a city hall there? I would like to see Ireland Avenue under construction before we build a city hall. My thought is if we do this switch, that gives us an opportunity to go ahead and get started. We could at least talk to the school.”
It was enough to raise the ire of council member Joan Kahler.
“This is going to put our city hall way back,” Kahler said. “We need the room right now. My god, I thought we had this all set in stone.”
“If we plop $400,000 worth of building there, and something goes wrong with Ireland Avenue, we already know we can’t go west, and if we can’t go east, we have x-ed out Ireland Avenue,” Upton said.
City engineer Doug Frederick told the council members Ireland Avenue’s alignment was already set.
“So that’s a moot point,” Berner told Upton.
Glasgow said he didn’t have an opinion either way, but that he would bear the cost of installing an access road into his development, and get approval from the CCA school district to do so.
“I didn’t mean to start a big argument,” Glasgow said. “We just put it out there as an anchor to the development. It would be a good fit for us, but if it doesn’t work for you, it’s absolutely no problem.”
City council member Mike Ryan said he didn’t care about the access road or the land swap.
“We lready have property acquired right in the middle of the old part of town,” Ryan insisted. “That’s where I want a city structure to be, to anchor it. We are going to have plenty of buildings on either end of town. The middle of Tiffin is sitting there with blight, falling apart, no sidewalks, no nothing. I don’t want to lose an opportunity to do something nice in the part of Tiffin that was there before all this other stuff happened. You are not going to abandon the old part of Tiffin.”
“I know you two don’t like it,” he said to Ryan and Berner. “We disagree. There’s no point in yelling. The bottom line is, intimidation is not going to change my mind.”
Ryan said he wasn’t trying to intimidate anybody, and Phillips shot back.
“Well that’s a first,” he said.
Council member Jim Bartels interrupted, maintaining that the locker property was not purchased with city hall in mind, and he thought another city property acquired from the Bryant family was more ideal for a city hall. He said Highway 6 would be just as good visually for a city hall locale, and that the center of town would be moving westward eventually anyway.
However, Bartels was the swing vote on Phillips’ motion to accept the land swap, and it didn’t swing in Phillips’ favor.
A roll call vote ended 2-3, with Kahler, Bartels and Ryan voting against it.
The council now awaits to review plans and specifications for the new city hall design, potentially at its June 12 meeting.