By Andrew Tellijohn
Medina city officials had known for two decades that space issues would eventually force changes for their Public Works and Police departments. But a few years ago they realized overcrowding was putting those employees in danger, and so they began engaging the public in an effort to find solutions.
A citizen advisory committee originally recommended spending $15 million to upgrade City Hall, build a new Police Department on-site, and construct a new public works facility near Highway 55.
While city officials studied this proposal closely, they also kept their eyes open for the possibility of a better deal. Eventually, in 2012, Medina purchased a 69,487-square-foot office/warehouse and remodeled it for the Public Works and Police departments—and did so at half the cost while likely accommodating growth for the next three to four decades.
For engaging residents in planning a cost-effective space expansion, and finding a solution that ultimately saved taxpayers money, the City of Medina was honored with a 2014 City of Excellence Award from the League of Minnesota Cities.
“The city spent a lot of time looking into ways to provide more cost-effective space,” says City Administrator Scott Johnson. “You have to be open to all the different possibilities in the city and look into them. The city was looking into all the different options that were available—the timing was fortuitous.”
Needs become obvious
A pole barn constructed nearly four decades ago behind City Hall in Medina served the Public Works Department well into the turn of the century. But as growth projected as far back as 1990 came to fruition, the needs of both police and public works employees were not being served. Off-season equipment was being stored outside, “which is not a good way to treat expensive equipment,” says Mayor Elizabeth Weir. “The original pole barn was built in 1975. We had simply outgrown it.”
Worker safety was also becoming an issue, such as the time a welding spark ignited a roof fire inside the pole barn.
“Once we recognized that, there was really no choice,” Weir says. “We could no longer put off addressing the need for a new public works facility.”
The Police Department was also struggling in the basement of City Hall. That was made clear when a suspect being detained in its basement holding facilities escaped through an egress door. “We were just out of space,” says Johnson.
So, in 2007, the city sought the advice of the citizen panel that made the $15 million recommendation. Two additional citizen focus groups in 2011 reviewed that study and determined Medina officials should spend about half that amount while focusing solely on the needs of the Public Works Department. However, when an office/warehouse building became available that would meet the needs of both departments much further into the future, while also providing room for administrative growth at City Hall—for about half the price of the original group’s recommendations—they jumped at the opportunity.
“Once you crunched the numbers, on a per-square-foot price, even after the rehab, it was a heck of a lot better deal,” Johnson says. “We were just lucky the building came online when it did.”
Results and reflections
The city closed in late 2012 on a deal to purchase the building. It had previously been used by Clam Corp., which sells outdoor gear for ice fishing. At a grand opening event in January 2014, more than 200 people toured the newly remodeled building.
The new building brings many benefits. For one, it promotes efficiency because of the technological improvements it provides. For example, workers have offices with computers and are now receiving their orders via email rather than on printed papers, says Public Works Director Steve Scherer.
The facility also has showers for both public works and police employees. (In the previous public works site, the showers were used for storage.) In addition, the concrete facility allows for covered, heated storage of heavy equipment and police cars, which will extend the life of the vehicles and prevent them from being damaged by hail and other weather effects.
“I can’t begin to count the number of times I whacked my head on something [in the old building] because you had to walk through this maze of trucks,” Scherer says. “We’re so much more organized now. We absolutely love this building.”
In addition to better equipment and room to maneuver, the new building is much safer, he adds. The old public works facility had flammables stored in a work area. Those items are now housed separately, and employees can use a ventilated welding booth with the appropriate steel walls. That should help prevent a repeat of the fire that happened in the old building. The Public Works Department also has a new crane for hoisting snow plow blades to be installed on trucks, and this protects employees from injury.
For police, the building contains two secure holding cells and much more security than its previous location in City Hall. And, unlike the pole barn, this new building has room to grow.
Throughout the process, Weir and Johnson say, the city looked at a number of options, including renovating and expanding its current space (which would have addressed the situation for only five to seven years) and purchasing land from Hennepin County’s Public Works Department.
The Hennepin County land “was an 11-acre site with various limitations. We couldn’t build the size building we desired there,” Weir says. Instead, this purchase likely sets up both departments for up to 40 years, while also freeing up space at City Hall for a renovation and to accommodate administrative growth. The process involved considerable patience on the part of the city, and collaboration between Medina officials and residents, but it ended up being worthwhile, she says.
“I do believe in teamwork and collaborative working,” Weir says. “You achieve more by reaching out and working with people than by trying to fight against things.”
A benefit of tough times
One unsung hero in this story, Weir and Johnson say, was former Mayor Tom Crosby, a real estate attorney who thought the recession might provide an opportunity to make a deal. He was right.
“The advantage of this courageous move to go out and buy property in the depths of the recession was that we got a very good interest rate,” Weir says, adding that the 2.125 percent rate on $7.5 million in general obligation bonds is “going to save taxpayers money well into the future.”
While the city did have to raise the city’s tax rates slightly, Weir says, the lower cost and good interest rates made for a better deal than had the city spent the originally allotted $15 million.
When the building opened, the city used the opportunity to remember Crosby. A plaque prominently displayed in the building honors the former mayor, who died in 2013 after battling pancreatic cancer. He left a legacy in this project, city officials say.
“I think it was visionary of Crosby to lead the city down this road,” Weir says. “It was courageous in the middle of a deep recession when we didn’t know when it would resolve.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
Read the November-December 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine
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