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City Hall makeover progresses

Right now, to pay a water bill at Durham City Hall, citizens simply walk into the lobby and turn in their checks at a customer service desk. The setup allows for an unrestricted flow of people, but to city leaders the design lacks many of the characteristics of a modern government building, including security cameras, proper lighting and easy access for the disabled.

Prompted by similar design problems throughout the building, officials are in the midst of a $4.9 million City Hall renovation process in order to update their facilities.

"City Hall has gone 22, 25 years without any major renovations, and of course we've grown significantly since then," senior project manager Tony Smith said. "We're also reorganizing our office space to make our use of space more efficient."

In addition to reconstructing the lobby's customer service desk, renovations will include major changes to the City Council chamber, both in improvements to the audio-visual equipment and in modifications to make the chamber more handicap-accessible and multi-purpose.

Other plans include shifting departments' locations and updating office areas to meet current workplace standards and federal regulations.

Approximately 5,000 square feet of new office space will also become available to house around 35 more offices, some of which are now located in leased space outside of the City Hall complex.

"Some of City Hall is pretty shabby," Smith said. "There's torn carpet and other safety issues, and old workstations that have nothing to do with today's ergonomics."

Smith said other renovations include moving related departments closer together to increase work flow efficiency and allow for easier public access.

Renovations--for which officials started concrete planning last year--have already added 24,000 square feet in reclaimed office space and have cost $3.6 million. Nancy Law, an analyst in the department of budget and management services said some of the money was from the capital improvement plan, but most of the renovation funding came from special city bonds--called certificates of participation--issued exclusively for this purpose. If the city does not spend the COP money by August 2003, it will have to return it and pay back any interest earned.

At its next meeting Oct. 7, the council will discuss whether to return the remaining COP funds or to finish the final $1.25 million in improvements, as well as how to prioritize the remaining renovations if funding becomes a problem.

"It will be up to the council to decide whether to return the money we borrowed or to proceed with some or all of the renovations as scheduled, recognizing that not doing the renovations is not an option--hey need to be done," Law said.

Despite the limitations placed on COP funds, some council members have voiced concern over the allocation of funds. "Personally, I think it's a waste of time and money," council member John Best said. "We should just purchase the equipment we need to carry out the people's business, but to redo the whole thing I think is a waste."

However, Mayor Pro Tem Lewis Cheek said the city government's growth and the building's inadequacies have made renovation and reconstruction unavoidable.

"Some of the departments that are housed in City Hall have outgrown their space, and some changes have to be made to accommodate changing departments around," Cheek said.

"Some renovations are taking place in the mayor's office, because it is appropriate and necessary for the mayor to have an office that is attractive and comfortable, so that it is a place for him to meet people who come to the city from around the city, the state and the world," he said.

Although more than half of the funding for the remaining renovations is from COPs, nearly $480,000 is from the city's own budget. That money could be reallocated, but since the funds were originally included in the proposal, any changes would involve redesigning the plans, which would cost more money, Cheek said.

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