On-again, Off-again City Hall Project Has A Cloudy Future

13 News Story

January 05, 1992|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | By Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Staff writer

Throughout 1991, the controversial Westminster City Hall expansion project was the focal point of an astonishing political tug-of-war among council members past and present.

As the year drew to a close, the fate of the on-again, off-again project -- aimed at easing an office-space crunch -- remained uncertain.

Last spring, the previous council voted to allocate $1.6 million in the fiscal 1992 budget for the first phase of the $3.4 million project. The council had spent $40,000 for a consultant's report that recommended renovation of City Hall, including a 10,000-square-foot addition, for Phase I.

The second phase consisted of a new 17,000-square-foot building for the Police Department and other offices on landnear City Hall.

Then two council members -- both supporters of the project -- were swept from office in the May election, and a third council supporter stepped down after two terms. The expansion had been a primary campaign issue for the council challengers, and one of the first actions of the new body was to pull back the money allocated for the expansion.

The points of contention were many:

* First,to build or not to build. New council members Rebecca A. Orenstein and Kenneth A. Yowan agreed with Mayor W. Benjamin Brown that the potentially less expensive option of leasing space had not been explored adequately.

* Then, a dispute about how best to pay for such a project. Council President William F. Haifley said the city should pay cash up front, arguing that the cost of borrowing money would result in a more expensive project.

Brown advocated a bond issue. The costwould be greater, but the current tax-paying citizenry wouldn't be stuck with the entire bill, he argued. Since a revamped City Hall would benefit residents for years to come, it should be paid for over time by a succession of citizens, he reasoned.

Despite the new realities brought on by the composition of the new council, Haifley continued through the summer to push for moving forward on the project. He seized an opportunity on Aug. 26.

With Brown away on vacation, Haifley called for a vote on the expansion. The vote was split 2-2, with Yowan and Orenstein opposed and Stephen R. Chapin Sr. and Edward S. Calwell in favor.

As council president, Haifley casts votes only tobreak ties.

"Gee, I finally get to vote on something," he said before casting the final vote in favor.

That looked like the end of the squabble. Yet the project's fortunes were reversed again early last month. A council discussion that began as a routine review of bidsfor Phase I ended in a 3-1 vote to table the project indefinitely.

Chapin cast the critical vote, saying the continuing decline of state and municipal economies gave him pause.

"A lot of things have changed since we first entertained this project," he said.

On that same night, the council also voted to have a public hearing on the project, a fairly peculiar move because it will be a hearing on a matter the council already had approved.

Nonetheless, if the public uneasiness that Orenstein, Yowan and Brown say exists among citizens comes through at the hearing, the grand expansion of City Hall -- which seemed off and running only a few weeks ago -- never could come to fruition.

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