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New City Hall tempts commissioners

Ever so briefly Monday, city commissioners considered this question: Why not build a new City Hall?

It was a tempting notion, especially when city administrators were painting such a grim picture of the existing building, which was built in the mid-1960s for $588,000.

The 32-year-old seat of government in Clearwater has an air-conditioning system that won't last much longer; duct work that has never been cleaned; a cantilevered third floor that sags in places, including the city manager's office; an aging plumbing system; and several fire code violations.

And then there was architect Dean Rowe, who already had sketched a plan for a new, $3.3-million City Hall adjacent to the city's new office building on Myrtle Avenue.

Commissioners could put the old building "to some other municipal use," Rowe suggested Monday. "It'd make a superb art museum."

At that juncture in the two-hour debate, the commissioners shrugged off any talk of a new building and opted to spend about $800,000, just enough, they said, to whip the current building into shape for another few years.

Mayor Rita Garvey said the measure would let the issue "rest for a while," and give commissioners time to think about long-term solutions.

Commissioner Bob Clark said he couldn't support a new City Hall until several other city projects are "brought to closure."

"I think we owe that to the taxpayers," he said.

City officials are planning a new library and a new Memorial Causeway Bridge at a total cost approaching $40-million. At the same time, they're adding finishing touches to the new city office building, a new police headquarters and a parking garage, projects totaling $24-million.

City officials already had budgeted $500,000 for some renovations to City Hall. At issue Monday was whether that was enough, considering the building's age and condition.

A range of options was on the table, from spending an additional $28,000 to repair the air-conditioning system to spending $3.3-million for a new building.

In between were several other options, including a major renovation of the existing building for $3.1-million.

The $800,000 will pay for:

The original $500,000 project, which includes constructing a three-story stairwell on the northern side of City Hall to meet fire codes. City officials cautioned that it probably will not look too good.

Repairs to the air-conditioning system, costing about $250,000.

New telephone and computer wiring for about $50,000.

The commissioners asked for a more specific breakdown of the costs to examine at their meeting Thursday night. Several of them expressed concern, saying they did not want the renovation budget for City Hall to escalate as it did with the Harborview Center.

"I don't want to mislead the taxpayers," said Commissioner J. B. Johnson, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the city's handling of the Harborview Center, a $14-million project that once had a budget half that size.

Garvey agreed.

"If we're going to do it, let's not play around with this," she said.