The Ashland City Council took another step toward resolving the future of City Hall, a two-decades old debate, at its study session Monday night.

The council agreed to spend roughly $40,000 to hire a consultant firm to produce conceptual review for all three potential locations for a new City Hall. The potential sites have been narrowed down to the current City Hall location, the Civic Center where the municipal court and police station are located, and the old Briscoe School. The projected cost is about half the $80,000 estimated in the staff report to the council, which included the condition, “depending upon the level of engineering evaluation of the existing City Hall.”

City Administrator John Karns said the difference is that the $40,000 is for just conceptual designs.

The decision was criticized by two Ashland residents who spoke at the meeting of “wasting taxpayers’ money” on conducting studies and hiring consultant firms.

After years of debate and months of ad hoc committee’s work, Ashland remains conflicted about what to do with its City Hall, leaving 27 city officials — including the mayor and the city administrator — vulnerable in what’s been determined to be a structurally unsound building.

“We know there is deferred maintenance at City Hall … and that deferred maintenance has cost us,” said Paula Brown, the city’s public works director.

The conceptual designs will provide a look of concept costs, pros and cons and “value statements” of each site, which hopefully will help the council put their priorities in perspective, Brown said.

“I think this is a very simple answer,” Councilor Rich Rosenthal said at the meeting. “I want, as a councilor, the most information possible for making the best possible decision for the community.”

Brown said there’s no noticeable cost differences whether the city committed to one or all three sites in the conceptual design phase.

“Working with conceptual ideas and designs means we are taking information we already have,” she said. “Once we get into the design (phase), we don’t want to do more than one (location).”

Other councilors supported Rosenthal’s sentiment, saying it’s essential for the city to review the pluses and minuses of each site. The council is currently divided on what might be the ideal site for City Hall.

Councilors Mike Morris and Traci Darrow raised the questions of practicality, making a case for the Civic Center.

“I don’t know why we need City Hall downtown — what do we consider a city hall?” Morris said. “There’s a lot of good things in combining (Community Development) and Public Works here.”

Morris cited the limited parking spots around the current City Hall location for residents who need to pay their utilities bills or file for a permit.

Darrow cited an option where it would cost an estimated $1.75 million for the city to perform the minimum seismic upgrade and utilities work on the current City Hall before renting it out.

“If we are saying we will move out and rent it to someone else for $1.75 million, but city employees staying and working there takes $10 million,” Darrow said. “I can’t get my head around that.”

Councilors Greg Lemhouse and Dennis Slattery said they favored the downtown location. Councilor Stefani Seffinger said she wants to see cost evaluations of the complete and partial reconstruction plan of City Hall before making a decision.

At least four councilors said at the meeting they don’t think the site at Briscoe School would be fitting for a new City Hall, but ended up agreeing to perform the conceptual design there anyway.

Brent Thompson, a former planning commissioner, said at the meeting the city shouldn’t spend more time and money on other locations for City Hall, recalling the same argument happened two decades ago.

“Paring down the scope of the study is a good idea — city departments should be able to figure out these (studies),” Thompson said. “We had a huge battle in 1993 regarding the location of the City Hall. We don’t want to repeat that.”

Slattery said it’s time the council “pick a lane,” but also emphasized that they need a complete picture to do it.

“What kind of bothers me is that … we have been looking at this for a quarter of a century. One council after another has passed without doing something about it,” Slattery said. “We do need to get the information in order for us to make a decision and pick a lane and start working it out.” 

— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.