More than a year and a half of lengthy discussions led to concrete plans for the future of Brainerd's government and public safety facilities.
A 2017 facilities study showing various deficiencies with city hall led to a council debate about just fixing those issues or constructing a new building.
At first, a majority of the council seemed to favor a new building. But an ultimatum came last December, when three council members-Sue Hilgart, Gabe Johnson and Dave Badueax-agreed to vote for a higher tax levy than they wanted if it meant keeping the current city hall building.
A 6% levy increase and city hall stays where it is.
The rest of the council agreed, sending city staff on a mission to determine the best plan of action for fixing the deficiencies plaguing the century old city hall, along with making updates to fire and police facilities.
City hall's shortcomings, according to the 2017 study, include a failing heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC system, and space issues in both the main part and the annex portion of the building. Tack on to that configuration issues in the police and fire stations and the separation of city departments among multiple buildings throughout Brainerd, and fixing the city's building issues is no small-or cheap-task.
Mike Angland, of Widseth Smith Nolting, laid out preliminary plans during a city council workshop in March, but left council members wanting a few more details before deciding on anything.
He brought back answers to their questions and more solidified plans during the council's meeting Monday, June 17.
Work to be done
Of the five options presented, city council members chose to move forward with one that includes the following projects and cost estimates.
• Replace city hall's cooling tower and heat pumps for new HVAC system, $660,000.
• Upgrade city hall's HVAC controls, $26,000.
• Repair city hall's exterior south stairs, $25,500.
• Replace city hall's fluorescent light fixtures with LED lights, $120,000.
• Remodel police station's interior, $192,000.
• Upgrade police station's HVAC controls, $15,000.
• Complete a fire department needs study, $25,000.
• Upgrade fire department HVAC controls, $15,000.
• Remodel sewer and street department's interior and construct an addition, $234,500.
Also included were five "a la-carte" projects, any of which the council could choose to include. Members agreed to add all of them, which are:
• Replace city hall's ballasted roof, parapet walls and roof drains, $85,130.
• Tuckpointing city hall's brick, stone and mortar, $95,000.
• Install new guardrail and interior finishes for city hall's stair enclosure, $28,000.
• Upgrade city hall's security system, $45,000.
• Replace city hall's windows, $78,000.
With design/construction contingency, general conditions and architectural/engineering fees, the total cost estimate comes to just over $2.47 million.
The option chosen is in the middle of the five options given in terms of cost, with Option 1 (which doesn't include a new HVAC system) starting at $844,000, and Option 5 climbing to $6.2 million with the remodel of the city hall's annex building included.
The option chosen, however, does not account for the cost of what likely will be a new fire station.
At the current station, firefighters have issues getting trucks in and out with the always-increasing size of vehicles. To chip away at the issue, Angland said the overhead doors could be heightened for about $75,000, but there's no room on the property to widen the doors.
The apparatus floor, as it stands, is nearly unusable for storing trucks, Fire Chief Tim Holmes said, as much of it is used for equipment storage because of spacial issues in the building. With the land configured as it is, there isn't a whole lot Angland said architects can do to address the increased space needs.
Therefore, Holmes suggested a location and needs study, a $25,000 endeavor to garner a third party opinion on the best spot for a new fire department, should the city choose to go that route. Holmes said the study would take into consideration things like response times, where paid on-call firefighters live, housing availability and space needs both now and in the future.
"With the amount of money we'd spend to raise a couple doors and not address the overall problem that we have as we move forward, I think this is the best option," Holmes said.
Holmes roughly estimates a new station to cost about $6-7 million.
In the meantime, he said minimal HVAC upgrades-included in the council's chosen plan-will suffice.
At the police station, reconfiguration plans include a secure waiting area near the newly designed interview rooms, which allows for those coming in to give statements-especially about sensitive crimes and situations-out of the public eye.
"There's people that are very emotional, and some very serious things have happened to them, and the proper thing would be to get them into that private waiting area," Police Chief Corky McQuiston said Monday.
Also included is a secure, enclosed vestibule entrance at the building's main doors and a new intercom system. Right now, McQuiston said, because of the old HVAC system blowing gusts of air, the handicap button on the front door often thinks someone is trying to open it when no one is there, causing the door to stay wide open and further contribute to heating and cooling issues.
The police department's server room will be relocated to a spot with its own dedicated HVAC system, and investigator rooms will be reconfigured. Currently two investigators share each room, which McQuiston said can make police work difficult when both are trying to talk on the phone, record conversations or work on sensitive cases.
Four of the five options presented Monday included a new HVAC system for city hall, while Option 1 explored the cheaper route of fixing the current system. The council ultimately agreed to go with a new system, which would be about 30% more efficient, Angland said, and likely cheaper to maintain in the long run.
Construction on the HVAC system is planned to happen one floor at a time, with the city staffers on the floor being worked on relocated to a different floor during construction. This plan, Anglad said, would likely cause the least disruption, allowing staff to stay in the building instead of having to pay for another space for temporary relocation.
Though no major remodeling is planned for city hall, updating the building's HVAC system will create more usable storage space in the garage. City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson previously said the garage has a humidity issue right now, meaning anything stored there usually grows mold.
The option council members unanimously approved does not include any upgrades to the annex building on the north side of city hall. This building houses The Brainerd and Crow Wing County Public Transit office and driver's license exam station, and served as the Brainerd Community Action office until the end of 2018. The top floor has been vacant since Community Action moved.
City staff previously suggested renovating the annex building to serve as a tenant space to earn extra income for the city, but the council did not recommend moving forward with the nearly $1 million project.
Parks and recreation/street department
Parks and recreation administration staff will relocate to city hall, while the department's maintenance workers would be housed in the addition at the street department maintenance garage on Thiesse Road.
This plan would vacate the current parks and recreation building in Lum Park, cutting down on costs for the city.
The Lum Park building, Torstenson previously explained, has space deficiencies, forcing staff to shuffle things in and out and create temporary work spaces when trying to work on any project.
Before voting on which of the five options to move forward with, council member Kelly Bevans questioned whether the limited updates in Option 3 did enough to better serve the public.
"(Options) 1-3 does everything for the people who work here. Four and five does everything for the rest of us, and that's the one part I think we're missing," Bevans said, mentioning the county government configuration, where all services are in close proximity to each other, making things easy for residents.
"Option 3 does nothing for the rest of the citizens," he added. "This building was not built to do what the Crow Wing County services center does. It cost money to make that change."
Options 4 and 5 would remodel the interior of city hall with efficiency upgrades including more office and meeting spaces for both current and future staff members.
Council member Jan Lambert sided with Bevans, noting "one-stop shopping," or having one central government building housing all the city's services, would be nice for residents.
"Let's utilize the city hall. Let's not have them all spread out," Lambert said, adding she doesn't just want to put a Band-Aid on the city's problems.
Council President Gabe Johnson reminded them Option 3 does help the public by relocating the parks and recreation administrative staff to city hall and noted the increase in usable space with the new HVAC system without spending millions of extra dollars.
"If you look at the actual facility study ... it can be done, the space exists," Johnson said, facetiously adding, "We just haven't looked at it that way because we want to take as much taxpayer money as possible and just do it."
With online services becoming more and more common, council member Dave Badeaux said he has a hard time justifying the city spending so much money trying to consolidate services in one building or on one floor.
"It's a changing world," Badeaux said. "In 15 years, we may not need to have everything on one floor; we may not even need the amount of space that we have."
He also noted the new HVAC system will allow for future expansions to city hall if needed.
Despite their hesitancy, Bevans and Lambert agreed to Option 3 with all the "a la carte" options, making the decision unanimous.
Council members then directed city staff to develop a concrete budget for Option 3 and bring it forward to the personnel and finance committee in July.