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Ashland mayor, councilors weigh in on Measure 15-193's chances

After months of debate in Ashland City Council chambers and on social media, an 11th-hour decision to restore City Hall rather than reconstruct it, and a feasibility study that cost the city $51,000, the fate of Ashland’s $8.2 million general obligation bond to rebuild City Hall and repair Pioneer Hall and the Community Center is in the hands of voters.

Election Day is Tuesday, but Oregon’s vote-by-mail ballots were mailed to voters May 1, so for many Ashlanders the decision regarding Measure 15-193 has already been made. The rest have a few more days to decide whether a restored City Hall and fixed-up Pioneer Hall and Community Center are worth paying 21 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $64.79 annually for a home assessed at $310,000, for 20 years.

City Hall represents the bulk of the price tag with an estimated cost of $7.2 million. Estimates for Pioneer Hall and the Community Center came in at $500,000 apiece. City Hall was built in 1891, Pioneer Hall in 1921 and the Community Center in 1922, and all are in various states of disrepair.

Ashland’s six city councilors and Mayor John Stromberg were asked to weigh in one last time on the bond, whether it should pass and whether it would. Stromberg and councilors Stefani Seffinger, Rich Rosenthal and Stephen Jensen responded, councilor Dennis Slattery declined to comment, and councilors Tonya Graham and Julie Akins did not respond.

All those who responded have voiced support for Measure 15-193, although Seffinger’s backing came with a disclaimer.

“I would’ve preferred it to be presented after the cost reduction committee had completed their work and after we have a better sense of how the pandemic will impact Ashland,” she wrote in an email. “With that being said, I do believe it is important to maintain our infrastructure and provide a safe working environment for our employees and citizens.”

Seffinger added that she was in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and is worried about the threat aftershocks may pose should City Hall withstand an earthquake. She also considered whether staging a major construction project downtown would negatively impact Plaza businesses more than another empty building. Ultimately, she decided the projects are worth the hefty price tag.

“I know that some of the added cost of rebuilding City Hall is in making it more energy efficient, which is in line with reducing the city’s carbon footprint, a goal I support,” she said. “In the end I decided to vote yes on this bond.”

Stromberg laid out his reasoning for throwing his support behind the bond in seven bullet points, starting with his contention that it’s a safety issue.

“People’s lives are at stake, both city employees and citizen customers and passers-by,” he wrote in an email. “City Hall is built of unreinforced masonry, which is notoriously unstable in an earthquake. To my mind this is a moral issue, an issue of trust between the council and the employees who work in City Hall and citizens who transact business there.”

Stromberg went on to express his concerns about the city’s liability exposure, pointed out that Ashlanders wouldn’t see an increase in their tax bill because the bond would essentially replace two bonds that expire June 30, said a renovated City Hall would add “to the character of downtown,” and said construction costs may end up lower than estimated “if our experience during the 2008 Great Recession holds true during the current economic downturn.”

ORW Architecture delivered a report to the City Council April 21 concluding that a seismic renovation of City Hall was structurally feasible and that “historic preservation is expected to add about three percent to project costs, which is within an acceptable range of the $7.2 million bond proposal.” ORW estimated it would cost $5,017,000 to renovate the 8,520-square-foot City Hall, or $588.85 per square foot. That estimate included direct construction costs and did not take into account furnishings and equipment, architect and engineer design fees, consultant fees, inspection and testing fees, plan check fees, state sales tax, hazardous material testing and removal or financing costs.

“This is a well planned, well designed, well vetted project that will make an important positive impact on the appearance and economy of the city at a time when a boost is really needed,” Stromberg said. “It doesn’t raise taxes and, most importantly, it maintains faith with our city employees and citizen customers by providing a safe, updated, historically authentic building in the heart of our community.”

Stromberg declined to predict whether the bond would pass.

Jensen, who described himself as an “unabashed and unapologetic supporter” of the bond, said he believes the city has put off the issue of its dilapidated buildings long enough and needs to act.

“We’ve been kicking the can because there’s always a reason not to do it,” he said. “Whether it’s the flood, 9/11, the great recession, the smoky air, there’s always a reason not to do it, and this council had the gumption and the foresight to at least bring it to a vote.”

Jensen rejects the notion that the bond represents merely a “replacement tax,” framing it instead as investment by local property owners into their town.

Still, he admitted the odds don’t seem to be in the bond’s favor.

“The folks that are against it have really put forth a considerable amount of energy and rhetoric against it,” he said. “So it’s going to be a heavy lift, but I’m hopeful. There are signs that it might have some traction.”

Rosenthal said those who do their homework will end up voting for the bond, but isn’t sure what to expect Tuesday.

“Voters who have filtered out the noise, misinformation and hysterics on the topic and have taken the time to know the background, facts and circumstances about these three city buildings are inclined to vote yes,” he wrote in an email. “Ordinarily, this would be a practical and pragmatic investment in Ashland’s future that would easily pass, but the unfortunate circumstances we are in stemming from the pandemic makes passage less certain. I think it will be close either direction.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Ashland's historic City Hall is in need of a seismic upgrade. Ashland Tidings/ Denise Baratta