Willmar council restarts city hall discussions
WILLMAR -- It had been six months since the Willmar City Council had any serious discussion about a new city hall, a project considered one of its top priorities following several retreats in the first half of 2017.
WILLMAR - It had been six months since the Willmar City Council had any serious discussion about a new city hall, a project considered one of its top priorities following several retreats in the first half of 2017.
During last week's two-day retreat, the issue again rose to prominence, with a lengthy discussion during the second day.
"We haven't talked about it at all," City Administrator Ike Holland said as the discussion began. "I need to get a feel for where the council is at now."
While the council did not vote on any matters during the Jan. 11-12 retreat, the consensus seemed to be that a new city hall is needed and that it is still a top priority.
"It it is still one of the top buildings in disrepair," Councilor Shawn Mueske said.
While the current building is old and in need of upgrades, what has been discovered is the building is not a major health hazard. This was the finding of M.A.A.C, hired last fall by the city to conduct lead, asbestos and mold testing at the Willmar City Offices building.
"The city offices are not an environmental hazard that needed to be evacuated immediately," Holland said.
When it came to lead, there was only one spot in the building that was higher than the allowed limit by the Environmental Protection Agency. Window sills on the northwest side of the building were over the detection limit.
"We are attributing that to the proximity of the auditorium," said Sean Christensen, public works director. The auditorium has its own lead issues, which moved the city to put in an updated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the building.
Mold does not seem to be an issue at the city offices. According to the test results, mold levels were nearly 100 times higher outside than inside, which shows the building's air filters are working. The EPA does not have standards or threshold limits for mold, Christensen said, making it difficult to test.
The one issue the building does have, and it is not surprising, is asbestos. It can be found in the pipe fittings, pipe wrappings and in the carpet glue. The city has already had to deal with burst pipes, which required asbestos removal.
"Asbestos was well-used in that era of building," Christensen said. "It is throughout the building. The problem you have with asbestos is when you disturb it."
While there might not be an immediate health danger in regard to the current building, its age and inefficiencies as a city hall, including the lack of council chambers, continue to move the council to look at replacing it.
"To me this is a tipping point. We have to pick the location," Holland said. "We have kicked the can down the road long before I got here."
The consensus of the council from the retreat is the majority want the city hall to remain downtown.
"We need to be downtown," Councilor Fernando Alvarado said.
There are several possible locations downtown, including the current location, remodeling the old Hardware Express building or the empty lot where Nelsen's Laundry used to be. The council also looked at options outside of downtown in early 2018, including a plot of land on U.S. Highway 12 near the office of the Economic Development Commission and Stacy's Nursery. That land has since been sold.
"If we are going to do it, we need to get started now," Holland said.
In an attempt to get moving toward choosing a location, the council discussed forming a subcommittee of four council members and some city staff to research and come up with a recommendation for the entire council. The council spoke about this at the retreat last week and during Monday's work session, but no firm decisions were made and it will come up again at next week's council meeting, which will be on Tuesday because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
How much a new city hall would cost is also up in the air. The project would most likely be funded by bonding. There was $8.5 million in the 2018 Capital Improvement Plan for both the city hall and Willmar Community Center. With voters approving $2 million for the community center in the local option sales tax, a combination project no longer looks likely. No funds were added to the 2019 Capital Improvement Plan for a new city hall.
While there is still a difference of opinion amongst council and staff about a new city hall, what seemed clear during the recent discussions was no one wants to mess up such a large project.
"Let's make some tough decisions. Remember the decision we make today will be the legacy for our children and grandchildren," Mayor Marv Calvin said.