LAURINBURG —They say you can’t fight city hall.
But that is just what Mayor Matthew Block continues to do as he opposes construction of a new municipal building and tussles with fellow elected leaders over the project.
The Laurinburg City Council voted unanimously last week to ask the state Local Government Commission to help determine how much Laurinburg might be able to spend on a new City Hall.
Block has suggested that a better question might be: “Does Laurinburg even need such a facility?”
“I don’t understand the general concept,” Block told council members during a meeting — heated at times — on Thursday on proposed design options for the building. “There is enough room to stay here and have all the space we need.”
Block, the lone voice of opposition on council, said the project is unnecessary and has already wasted more than $100,000 in taxpayer money on engineers and architects.
Last week the council heard that, if approved, the final price tag could come in at around $10.8 million — or about $450,000 less for a scaled-down design that was also presented.
“It comes down to a need versus a want,” Block said.
But city staff and council have said that the expenditure might be a good investment considering the plethora of problems with the current facility built in the 1950s.
There are two studies to back up that argument. A 2013 space needs analysis, performed by Oakley Collier Architects of Rocky Mount, recommended 22,000 square feet to house various city departments under one roof. That would give the city about 7,000 more square feet than it has in the current police station and W. Charles Barrett administrative building combined.
Other concerns include the level of public access to the police department, asbestos flooring and staircases too narrow to comply with current fire codes.
Council member J.D. Willis said that a smoldering battery backup inside an electronics closet at the Barrett Building, could have destroyed the administrative building last year if it had not been detected during business hours.
Creech & Associates, the architectural firm hired to design the proposed building, did its own study that recommended a 23,500-square-foot facility “that would allow for future growth.” Under their proposal, the new building will house the Laurinburg Police Department and a utility customer service area on the ground floor with the city council chamber and all other city departments on the second floor.
“What we do know is that we need space somewhere between 22,000 square feet and 24,000 square feet,” Willis said.
Block argues that the space needs studies are faulty.
“Anyone looking at this from the outside would call into question the objectivity of two architect firms that stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on new construction,” he said. “I would say their input has come from staff, who I think the world of, but if you ask almost any staff of any organization, they always want more space.”
Block added that City Manager Charles Nichols told him last year that space was not concern.
“I’m a little confused about a study because Charles when I was running for mayor you said to me that the newspaper was reporting it wrong about this being a space needs issue … that we don’t have a space needs thing,” Block said. “You said it to me and you said it several subsequent times.”
“I do not recall that at all,” Nichols said. “When we talked there were multiple issues .. My number one concern was safety … the safety of our employees.”
Council member Dee Hammond said that the concerns about space and other issues in the aging City Hall are not new and that the idea of a study was also considered during Block’s first term as mayor more than four years ago.
Hammond added that the current City Hall lacks adequate space for records from the city clerk’s office and Human Resources Department.
Hammond, a former Laurinburg city clerk, said both departments have information that must be kept in written form for an indefinite time.
“That clerk’s office is overrun with records that cannot be kept on a computer,” Hammond said. “There needs to be one room dedicated to those records that is accessible to the clerk, human resources and the public. We can’t just store them in some place off site. If people can’t get to them that is not good business.”
Block was unconvinced. He said the city staff has not grown significantly over the last decade and there is “lots of unused space” in the current building.
“We have all this space for telecommunicators and we only have one on staff,” he said. “We have hundreds of square feet for one person and right across the hall we have a huge office with two beautiful windows. We could make four or five offices from space not currently used.”
Block suggested that pressure washing, fresh paint, new ceiling tiles and “some landscaping” are more appropriate fixes.
Brent Green, of Creech & Associates, said what Block was describing was “a deferred maintenance” that his firm had not been asked to study.
“I can say that we have walked through the building with staff and some of those same things you see as extra space, based on our conversations with staff, we see as limitations,” Green said.
Council member Dean Williamson said making minor repairs on the facilities was “kicking the can down the road.”
“I suppose we could paint and not renovate, but that would just be sort of a touch up,” Williamson said. “If there is truly a space problem, it is something we may need to address.”
He added that now may be a good time to build with current interest rates low and the city’s long-term debt “in a comfortable position.”
“Why don’t we find out what this thing is going to cost us and then let you guys see if we can finance it,” Williamson said. “You may come back and say the time is not right.”
But Block said city officials were not being “straight-up” with residents when they say the project can be done without raising taxes.
“No matter how much you try to rearrange the words …. you cannot make money appear out of nowhere,” Block said. “I just want the citizens to know that the money to pay for this building is coming from the utility fund or from your taxes that would otherwise be lowered if this building were not built.”
Reach Scott Witten at 910-506-3023