In response to Mayor Andy Szekely's recent blog entry, which you can read here, I felt it was time to follow up on a long overdue campaign promise and start to blog about my experiences as a Borough Councilman.
As such, in an effort to clear up any potential misconceptions, I'd like to offer a somewhat different view (i.e., my view) of the issues surrounding the potential upgrade of the Police Station and Borough Hall. It's my contention that our Mayor has painted a somewhat one-sided picture. As anyone who knows the Mayor knows, he always welcomes a healthy debate, and this is certainly a topic which deserves it.
And while this is a (very) long post, I do encourage you to put up with my wordiness, as I feel a complete picture is required.
Let's start with this statement from his blog: "...Spiezle and Associates, was contracted to do a facilities study in order to independently and objectively assess the condition of Lansdale’s structures. I understand this rationale to a certain extent." I ask, why only to a certain extent? If the study was to be done independently and objectively, as it was, and an almost 100% new Council and Administration needed to take stock of the issues that had piled up over thirty years of neglect, wouldn't it be only prudent to embark on such an investigation? I submit it would be completely irresponsible not to. Incidentally, you will find this sensible investigative approach was repeated in a number of other areas: financial management, human resources, IT, and so on.
Actually, before I continue on the building front, let's get the dirty word out of the way now, as I'm sure you'll hear it a lot over the next 8 months. Consultants. Yes, the Borough has hired consultants (gasp) to help make sense of the state of affairs it inherited from an administration that had done little to keep its house in order and invest in the maintenance of its assets. The Borough does not have highly trained financial auditors, HR or IT experts on staff. Our taxes would be much higher if we did. It needs temporary help in many specialized areas. The truly important thing is that once you have advice from those consultants, you act. Otherwise you are indeed just wasting taxpayer money. So, what have we learned and been able to accomplish with the help of these dastardly consultants? Quickly taking stock of just a few of those consultants I mentioned above:
- Forensic Audit: Completed and Activated. (Incidentally, balanced budgets for the last 3 years with money being put BACK into reserves. Reversed a dangerous downward trend of deficit spending. Awards for exemplary financial management. I must have missed this item in the Mayor's kudos to Council.)
- HR Study: Completed and Activated (First time in HISTORY that the Borough has had a basic Employee manual. May seem trivial, but is extremely critical in our overly litigious society. Many more improvements in this area.)
- IT Study: Completed and Activated (Strategic planning complete and initial key investments underway. Our technology infrastructure on many fronts has been woefully behind and outdated.)
- Facilities Study: Completed and activation underway. (The reason we're having this conversation in the first place.)
And so on. The point is, we engage consultants where expertise is needed to understand a problem fully and then make informed decisions about how to move forward and make things better. We don't commission studies to sit on a shelf and collect dust.
Back to the buildings... The facilities study was clear -- both buildings have major issues. Everyone seems fairly content to generally accept that fact (for some reason I can't quite fathom) for the Police Station, but as it seems to be the more controversial subject, I'll focus on Borough Hall.
From the study, a summarized, very shortened list of issues with that building:
- The windows, walls, copings, and roof all require major repair or replacement.
- Infestations and mold.
- Significant HVAC issues
- Roof flashing, roof membranes. Water leaks from all directions. (See #2)
- ADA. Yes, the building is not ADA compliant. The second floor and basement are completely inaccessible to folks with disabilities.
Because of the aforementioned issues with the building (and many others not mentioned here), the focus should not be on whether we do something to Borough Hall, but precisely what we should do. Take a walk around the nooks and crannies of that building and the issues noted above are clear to the naked eye. Spend any time there and you will know they are very real. A high-level estimate to just fix/patch those items is $2 million. Nothing to sneeze at. But please understand, these are not unnecessary or self-serving improvements. This is what – at the very least – must be done. It just doesn't seem clear how this item can be up for debate. If your house is broken, unsafe and potentially unhealthy, you have to fix it. Don't you?
However, that $2 million I mentioned does absolutely nothing to deal with the other inadequacies (i.e. layout), in terms of functional usefulness, of the building. This is the area where reasonable people might disagree, but I contend that it requires a full and complete view of the problem, taking the overall renovation of the Police Station and Borough Hall into context. By way of analogy, as we plan to pave roads in the Borough, we tackle all the problems underground, not just those on the surface. It just makes good business sense to do so.
The Mayor mentions that, by his count, on average 13 people attend Council Meetings. (Sad but true.) I infer that this is his way of saying that a new Council chamber layout, with proper (i.e., modern, but decidedly un-lavish) audio/visual facilities and somewhat expanded seating (impossible in the current building structure) is unnecessary, because people don't come to meetings. Frankly, his attendance estimates may actually be high if you exclude staff, but I honestly think that misses the point entirely. It's essentially like saying, "People don't care what we do here, so why should we invest in the facilities that serve them." I suspect that's the attitude that “sustained" us for the previous 30 years. What I like to call the "let's do just enough to keep things from falling apart" approach. That's not sensible management, and it's not running things like a business.
Fortunately, because we have managed our money wisely and built strong partnerships with companies like Merck, we have a unique opportunity to invest sensibly in the infrastructure that serves the community. To give them (yes, the Community, not Council or Staff) something very functional they can take pride in. The Mayor asks, "Do people flock to Doylestown to see Borough Hall?" Probably not. It's not a tourist attraction. But again, I think this question entirely misses the point. Do the people that work and conduct business there appreciate the facility they have? Does it make it easier and more efficient to conduct business, and so those people are more productive as a consequence? Is it more inviting, perhaps inspiring more people to participate more actively? Does it provide a sense of pride for the community? Probably yes.
Admittedly, pride doesn't pay the bills and probably isn't enough. So, the question really boils down to this: is a well-constructed, fully-integrated facility with modern amenities (that significantly enhances the appearance of a gateway corner of our town) more cost-effective in the long run than two separate, un-integrated buildings, one of which is getting a (mere!) $2 million makeover and may need further upkeep in "nearer" future. Honestly, when you phrase the question that way, factor in year over year operational costs, and know the dollar amounts involved in a half-solution ($6.63MM) vs. a whole solution ($8.51MM), the way forward seems a whole lot clearer. Band-aid for nearly $7 million, or solve all your problems for $8.5MM. Yes, those are big numbers. It's what happens when you neglect your town for many years. I think we all see the greater potential in Lansdale. And we need a holistic approach that stops kicking the can to the next group, and takes responsibility for the challenges that face us now. They'll just end up costing us more later if we don't. You only need to look at our current situation to know the whole truth of this statement.
I need to touch on pride again for a second. Pride is very important. That's why there is "quite a stir" when the word demolish gets thrown around in reference to this building. What the Mayor may not know as he was unable to attend the Admin and Finance Committee meeting last week is that there was indeed much discussion about the need for historic preservation of this building. We definitely have razed too many historic buildings in this town, and we have a responsibility to look at options that accomplish the goal of resolving all the building's deficiencies while preserving its historic character. In point of fact, one option we are reviewing does just that. So we are not headed inexorably down a path that levels the existing building. We are exploring all the options, as we ought to do. As any good business would.
Let's also deal for a moment with the Mayor's "cheap shot" (his words) about the bathrooms. Here's what the report actually says: "The Borough Manager's office is currently located on the first floor of the Borough Hall. The space is aesthetically pleasing and appears to have adequate square footage for the Manager's needs. However, the office's location on the first floor poses a security risk. Currently, members of the public have easy access to the Borough Manager and his/her staff as they are located directly off the main lobby. Additionally, the Borough Manager does not have private restroom facilities so he/she must use the public restroom through the lobby. In an effort to improve the safety of the Borough Manager and his/her staff, it is recommended that these offices be relocated to either a secured zone on the first floor or the second floor." (Emphasis added by yours truly.) I suppose we can debate about whether you feel the Borough Manager should be security conscious, but I think we all read the papers and Patch, and are comforted to see Officer Cornelius in Council each time we are there. So, to summarize, this was mentioned in the report in the context of a safe working environment, not so the Borough Manager could take afternoon showers in her office. A cheap shot indeed.
Lastly, with all due respect to the Mayor, I do find somewhat irresponsible the way in which he has portrayed the process we've gone through with Speizle, a highly respected architectural firm in this region. He seems to be saying that Speizle provided a report which was purposely misleading about the conditions of the Police Station and Borough Hall, so that they might immediately swoop in as the Borough's savior for the architectural services required, should we decide to do something. For the record, Speizle was properly vetted by the Borough, and selected after a full and open RFP process. Their credentials are significant.
So what we actually have is a respected firm that has spent a significant amount of time studying our issues, has a thorough understanding of the problems we face, and an impeccable track record with this type of design project. Why in the world would we want to go through the process of soliciting yet another firm to come in, essentially start from scratch, absorb what Speizle has already done (if they would even be willing to leverage someone else's work), and only then start a design process? Seems like a fairly obvious waste of time and money if you value the services the firm has already provided. Once again, the real underlying insinuation is that the Mayor questions Speizle's work in general. It's certainly his prerogative to do so, but I do not, particularly given their work product to date. Moreover, whatever designs are proposed, the implementation must still follow the very typical and thorough bid process we always go through. Ample opportunity for discussion and redirection.
In summary, we will continue to follow the process and discuss the issue openly. Demolishing the building is only one option, and in the Committee's opinion, not the most palatable one. But the recommendations are very clear that something must be done to both buildings. Please come to our Committee and other public meetings, listen to the conversation, and express your opinion.
Thanks for listening!