It’s not just voters who haven’t approved a new Palm Coast City Hall. Neither has the Palm Coast City Council. The city administration, however, is proceeding as if its concept of a new, $10 million, 40,000-square-foot city hall is a done deal.
Late last year the administration advertised a request for qualifications from architecture firms and settled on one—Orlando-based C.T. Hsu and Associates, which designed several city halls in Florida, including Winter Garden’s 40,000-square-foot model. The council hasn’t signed a contract with the firm, nor has it seen a schematic design. The city has just advertised another RFQ—for a construction management company, posting a construction budget of $8.3 million. Companies have until March 2 to send in proposals.
“Where we are now, the city has selected the architect. They still have to present it to the city council for them to approve,” said Dave Klages of the city’s purchasing department, which oversees the RFQs. “They’re just assuming the architect is going to be approved.” Advertising the construction management RFQ, Klages said, “is an indication that they’re expecting it to be passed by the city council,” adding, “I think it’s already a go.”
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Mayor Jon Netts bristled at the suggestion Thursday. “It’s certainly not a go. Absolutely not a go,” Netts said. “If they’re saying it’s a go maybe they’re saying getting a proposal from the management firm to see what’s involved, but it’s absolutely not a go to build one, not in my mind anyway.”
Netts wasn’t aware of the RFQ advertising for the construction firm, but he was aware of the advertising and choice of an architectural firm. An early supporter of a new city hall, Netts in November pulled back slightly, asking instead for “hard data” on what a new building would entail, how efficient it would be, what it would, in fact, cost. “I’m still looking for some specific data,” Netts said. That data has not been presented to the council. The mayor interpreted the RFQs as part of the process of gathering that hard data. But he repeated that whatever the administration’s moves have been, “there’s been no contract before city council and therefore there’s no action by city council.”
The driving force behind a new city hall is not the council, but Jim Landon, the city manager, who has been pushing the idea aggressively for more than a year, and in late fall held a series of town hall-style meetings around town to present the idea to the public. His tone changed somewhat during those meetings, where—at least before the public—he portrayed himself more neutrally on the issue than he had before the council. The public meetings were designed to sway a public still largely opposed to the idea. In 2005, 82 percent of the electorate rejected a referendum on building a new city hall.
At the time, the proposal entailed a 70,000 square foot building and a bond levy that would have been financed with slightly higher taxes. In this case, Landon is proposing to pay for the new city hall with $10 million without raising taxes, though just over half the amount would be borrowed by the city’s Town Center community redevelopment agency to enable the deal. (The CRA, a subset of the city government, “owes” the city’s general fund that amount. It would pay it back, but only by borrowing it at regular, commercial rates.)
The difference in size and in price may not be affecting the public as much as the method and timing of the administration’s push for a new city hall. A recurrent theme when people have addressed Landon or the council on the proposal is that if the council wants it, it should again submit it to a popular referendum, not make the decision on its own. The city is also hearing criticism for undertaking a $10 million project when its reserves are near all-time lows, when the economy has still not turned around, and when the $10 million, if available, could be used for other public works with broader results, such as stormwater or swale or other infrastructure improvements—or to rebuild reserves. Landon, nets and Council member Frank Meeker have argued that building in a downturn is the best time to build, because construction costs are low and the project provides a local economic stimulus. Yet the major firms handling the project will be from out of town.
Meeker, too, was surprised by the latest RFQ.
“I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea because nothing has been decided about a new city hall yet,” Meeker said Tuesday. “To my knowledge we’re still waiting for the manager and the administration to come back with additional information that was requested by the mayor.”
Meeker supports the notion of a city hall the way the mayor does—philosophically. But Meeker has had second thoughts about the location of city hall. Landon is pushing Town Center. Meeker says that plan was predicated on a city pre-dating its acquisition of 10 more square miles to its north and west. “The council may want to re-look at things based on these projects that are sitting to the left and see if the goals and projects of the last two years may be reconsidered in light of this new land,” Meeker said. “I really don’t like the shopping area for the city hall. I don’t think it’s the right image for the city. I really don’t.”