WESTMINSTER — In a startling and unexpected move Monday, a divided City Council voted to begin a $1.6 million addition to City Hall, a project that hasbeen steeped in controversy for months.
Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr. interrupted a council discussion on leasing additional officespace to offer a motion to move forward with building plans.
The vote on the measure ended in a 2-2 tie, with Chapin and Edward Calwell for, and Rebecca A. Orenstein and Kenneth Yowan against.
Council President William F. Haifley, who votes only in the event ofa deadlock, cast the tie-breaking vote.
"Gee, I get to vote," thecouncil president said, smiling.
The plan the council approved isa 10,000-square-foot addition to City Hall, one of three suggestionsincluded in a $40,000 consultant's study unveiled in June.
"I've gone back and forth with this issue," Chapin said afterward. "I've been a businessman all my life, and if I had $1.6 million in place, designated for a building, this is the decision I would make."
The addition is the first phase of a plan that would include construction of a 17,000-square-foot building, resulting in a price for the projectof more than $3.4 million.
Chapin's motion contained the condition that the project not cost any additional taxpayer money.
The debate on City Hall space had gone on for months and figured largely in the May election in which two council incumbents lost their seats. The former council approved the project, only to see it overturned in one of the first actions of the new council, which featured three new members after the election.
Orenstein and Yowan, two of the new members, had joined Mayor Benjamin W. Brown in calling for a halt to the drive to build additional space. The three had been searching for rental space in which to temporarily house some city operations while the debate on new construction was settled.
The three also advocated a short-term renovation to City Hall that would open up space and bring the council chambers down to a larger and handicapped-accessible area on the building's first floor.
Yowan had proposed eventual purchase and renovation of an existing building to meet the long-termspace needs of city government.
"We could spend less than half ofthe $1.6 million and solve all of our problems," he said.
But allalong, Haifley had strongly advocated new construction and urged that it begin as quickly as possible.
"The more we spin our wheels, the more money it's going to cost us," Haifley said Monday. "You can talk this thing to death and not accomplish a thing."
Finally, he managed to enlist the support of Chapin and Calwell to jump start the project with a vote that took place on a night when Brown, Haifley's chief adversary, was on a camping trip in Pennsylvania.
Referring to the project as the former council was considering it last spring, Haifley had declared, "This train has left the station."
Brown hadappealed for applying "the brakes," which occurred when the new council froze the funding in May.
Now there appears little left to decide except whether to pay for the addition up front or borrow the money through a bond issue.
Haifley is pushing for paying for the addition with cash, saying the city should dole out the money -- and avoid borrowing -- while it can afford to do so.
Brown, Orenstein andYowan have countered that because a revamped City Hall is a facilitythat will serve citizens for decades, it's unfair to ask one generation of taxpayers to foot the entire bill.
Yowan also pointed to favorable borrowing conditions in the current economic climate. The council directed its Finance Department staff to gather information on the merits of a bond issue.
Previous public discussions of the CityHall expansion proposal have been marked by public outcry, and Monday's meeting followed suit.
"I feel that the citizens have not beenpolled," said Kevin Wagner, a Green Street resident. "The consensus to build is not there. I don't think the public wants to spend $1.6 million."
Said resident Laurie Walters, "I sometimes wonder if anybody's listening to the public."
Both Orenstein and Yowan said theydidn't think the leasing option had been adequately considered.