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Old city hall gets a new tenant

A new Rambling River Center is in the works, but it's not yet clear how the city will pay to run it.

After nearly two months of discussion, the Farmington City Council voted Monday to turn the former Farmington City Hall building into a new gathering place for the community's seniors. The proposal passed by a 3-2 margin, with mayor Todd Larson and city council member Steve Wilson still expressing concerns with how to fund the additional $42,000 in operating costs that would come with the new center.

With an estimated $265,000 in renovations necessary to convert the old city hall into a new Rambling River Center, city staff had to come up with a few tricks to cover the cost. Much of the work will be done by volunteers -- more than 40 individuals and groups have already indicated they would help -- and the seniors have pledged to do aggressive fundraising.

In addition, parks and recreation director Randy Distad said the city will allocate $75,000 of funds it will receive from a future cell phone tower lease agreement to the project. The rest will be covered by a potential $105,000 levy, which would mean about $2.50 more in taxes on a $200,000 home, for a period of five years.

Wilson, though, did not like the idea of raising taxes to fund a building that will serve only one section of the community. He particularly did not like the fact the levy only covers the cost of the renovation, and does not supplement the daily operations.

"I just can't look at this project without looking at the bigger picture," Wilson said during Monday's meeting.

But three other council members thought it was time to move ahead on the project, which, as council member Terry Donnelly noted, was something the previous city council had supported last year.

Donnelly said he understands the need to be fiscally prudent, but noted the current city hall costs some taxpayers $80 annually, and will for 20 years.

"This is a one-time deal," he said. "I think we owe it to the seniors and I'm ready to move forward with it."

Current site

The need for a new Rambling River Center is not only due to the limited space available at the current site, but also to the fact there is some question about the building being structurally sound. Outside corners are starting to deteriorate, and mold was recently discovered in the walls of the mechanical room.

Getting rid of the mold will be fairly easy and will cost about $860, if the city council chooses to go ahead with the clean-up.

However, a structural engineer is needed to evaluate the building's structure. If the city uses its contracted engineering firm, Bonestroo, it would cost about $5,000 for the evaluation alone. However, council members are not ready to go ahead with that expenditure. Council member Christy Jo Fogarty said she would like the city to get more proposals. Larson and council member Julie May would like to just put the building up for sale and let the new owner deal with the problems.

Parks maintenance specialist Don Hayes will oversee the renovations at the new Rambling River Center site. The building is expected to be open this fall.

In the meantime, Distad will work with the Parks and Recreation Commission, as well as the Rambling River Center Advisory Board, to determine what fees can be raised, a suggestion made by Larson. Larson would also like to see the amount Castle Rock and Empire township contribute annually, which is now $250, increase. Those costs would help to address the $42,000 in additional operating costs projected for the new center.