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Former city manager concerned about Manzanita project

The Underhil property currently has a schoolhouse and Quonset hut on site. – File photo

A former Manzanita city manager is raising questions in the community about the new city hall project. Randy Kugler was city manager for eight years and recently served on the Manzanita City Hall/Public Facilities Advisory Committee. He says city officials aren’t exploring all the options for the project.

By Cody Mann
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Kugler recently mass-mailed a four-page letter to registered voters in Manzanita expressing his concerns about the project, which aims to rehouse city government offices, police and emergency response volunteers under one roof and out of the tsunami inundation zone, where city offices currently sit.

In his letter, Kugler said he was discouraged and embarrassed by the actions of the City of Manzanita government. He said the first indication of trouble was “a pattern of withholding information and misinformation” that he said began with trying to obtain basic information about the buildings on Underhill property, the old school campus where the project is sited. A schoolhouse and a Quonset hut sit on the property.

Kugler said he sensed decisions about the buildings were already made beforehand, and that the committee was fed controlled information to validate those decisions. He said City Manager Cynthia Alamillo was resistant to committee efforts to inspect the Underhill property, and said early on she was committed to tearing down the buildings under a false pretense that the presence of asbestos meant demolition was required.

“Given that Tillamook County sawmills were still producing old growth lumber from the Tillamook Burn until 1962, I suggest that despite its appearance, the framing members for a building built in 1948 that potentially contained old growth timber would be stronger and more disease and rot resistant than any wood produced in the last 50 years,” Kugler wrote in his letter.

“Also, the fact that the building’s architect Ebba Wicks Brown, a nationally known figure and the state’s first board certified female architect, might justify some further investigation to see if this is something other than an ‘ugly’ building that should be placed in the landfill,” Kugler wrote.

In October of 2018, city officials presented a 127-page structural assessment of the Underhill buildings from which Kugler cited a $310,000 cost for demolition, not including an additional $60,000–$70,000 for asbestos removal. Kugler said the report detailed cost estimates and remedies to bring the structures up to a serviceable level.

“Nowhere in this report did the engineer offer an opinion or recommend that the buildings be demolished,” Kugler wrote. “The project architect has also stated on several occasions that while perhaps it is not the most ideal situation, the school could most certainly be redesigned to serve the City’s purposes.”

Mayor Mike Scott said looking at the structural assessment shows a clear risk that the City Council chose to avoid. He said the councilors were unanimous in finding the schoolhouse in too bad of shape to invest in remodeling. The Quonset hut’s fate is still in discussion.

Alamillo and Scott shared concerns about the structure in an interview with the Headlight Herald. During a tour of the site, they emphasized the eroding condition of the schoolhouse building, which they believe was likely made with concrete mixed with beach sand. Scott described the foundation as “melting like old cheese.”

While Scott acknowledged that the site could be remodeled, he questioned whether it was worth the investment. He said he did not want to take city offices from a converted 1950s gas station to a 1948 schoolhouse because that would not make sense. Alamillo added that a remodeled building would have limited functionality when compared to a newly designed facility.

The mayor and city manager could not confirm any cost estimates related to demolition or construction aspects of the project, citing the need for further review. Alamillo said another round of asbestos evaluation would also be necessary.

At the heart of the matter is how much Manzanita residents might pay on a bond measure for their selected new build options, which will be in addition to paying off the loan to purchase the property. Kugler has urged the Manzanita City Council to develop a remodel option for public review and consideration, a request he says was met with opposition.

In November of 2018, Kugler said the project architect advised the committee that the cost for new building construction would be more than double what the committee had been using for planning purposes, despite previous discussions in which Council members said there would be no sufficient difference in costs between a remodel and new buildings.

Alamillo said the City has been working with a range of numbers related to around 10 options at the Underhill site. She said it was expected that factors such as building at the coast or in a rural area would increase the expected costs as the project is refined and given more specific direction. The 10 options have already been narrowed down to just a few similar concepts with different component sizes and layouts.

In his letter, Kugler cited a 2015 property appraisal by the previous owner that reportedly concluded the site lacked commercial development appeal and estimated $20,000 to remove asbestos and demolish the structures. Kugler said the appraiser’s opinion of the property’s market value was $1.76 million, but by the time the loan on the property is paid off and demolition is done, around $2.3 million will have been spent in preparing for new construction.

Kugler also said the City paid too much for the Underhill property, which reportedly cost $1.75 million. Using the appraiser’s method but accounting for recent residential lot sales as well as demolition and asbestos removal, Kugler said the property’s value is closer to $1.2 million, adding that City still owes more than $1.1 million on its loan.

City officials have said another prospective developer was eyeing the Underhill property and willing to pay more, but that the proposed project would have been objectionable to residents. Kugler said that argument was used to further support the City’s claim that fast action was necessary.

“Notwithstanding this reasoning, I would submit that City elected officials have no authority to make such decisions and spend public funds in this manner,” Kugler said. “I would be willing to be corrected on this observation should the City wish to request an opinion from the city attorney.”

Scott “agreed to disagree” with Kugler’s opinion about city officials’ authority to make the property purchase as they did. Scott and Alamillo declined to comment further on that remark.

Kugler also criticized the City for not requesting its own appraisal of the property and said the structural analyses did not go deep enough to check for dry rot, mold, insect damage or damage to structural members. He said an offer bring a group of local citizens with specific structural building expertise for further inspection garnered no response from city officials.

Using estimates and assumptions from various City consultants and supplementing those with actual estimates from local contractors, Kugler submitted to the committee a proposal for remodeling the school with a $1.6 million budget that would be added to other funds available to the City for construction, including repairing the Quonset hut for future use. Kugler said by delaying construction for three years the City could possibly avoid a tax bond. He added that the most comparable new facility option would require approving a $4.7-million tax bond.

Scott and Alamillo could not estimate the cost of a prospective bond measure, saying the defining details needed to make that calculation were still unclear at this early point in the process. With so much undefined, they also could not estimate the length of time a bond would be active. Those details are forthcoming as the project moves ahead, Alamillo said.

“The Council will tell you that the City has the lowest property tax rate in the state,” Kugler wrote in his letter. “In some twisted logic, this fact is then translated by the Council as a call for Manzanita citizens to enthusiastically embrace a City bond measure that depending what new build option they submit for your review, will cost the average property owner $4,500–$9,000 over the life of a 15-year bond.”

Scott said he feels the community will be receptive to a bond measure when all is said and done, but it will take some work to bring the community aboard. He said once a preliminary design architect is named and a proposal cost is defined the project should pick up support. The City Council was slated to pick from five initial proposals at its most recent meeting.

“We have to have fairly good numbers if we’re going to go out to the public for a bond measure,” Scott said. “All this work Randy is talking about, it’s all preliminary.”

At a special meeting this past March, city officials sat for a presentation from Stricker Engineering about the condition of the school and Quonset hut. Kugler’s impression of the report – it was brief, punctuated by unsubstantiated opinions, and ultimately found the school should be demolished. With that, the options for remodeling the school were discarded. Three tenants renting space on the property have been given notice that they have a year to relocate.

“What the first engineering study was not able to conclude in 127 pages with a two-hour public discussion somehow now became evident in literally minutes,” Kugler wrote in his letter. “There was no inspection locating the presence of dry rot, insect damage, mold or damaged structural members, just a one-hour walk through the buildings resulting in an opinion that such conditions might be present.”

Scott said the second opinion on the structural evaluation was much briefer because there wasn’t much to say aside from the opinion that the schoolhouse should be taken down. Alamillo said in her perspective, the short presentation was owed to the engineer’s confidence in the advice to demolish the structure.

Kugler said he has made just one request of the City Council during the committee process: submit a remodel option alongside of the various new build options with all of the relevant information at a scheduled community meeting so that citizens could voice their opinions. He said if the majority of citizens favor building new along with the bond measure, he would have no further objections.

“There is no reason why I as a citizen and we as a community should find ourselves in this uncomfortable situation,” Kugler wrote in his letter. “For a year, I asked questions that I believe needed to be asked and communicated in writing and in person with the mayor and Council with my observations.”

“I consistently advised the City to stop overestimating its project revenues and underestimating project costs and face the fact that it had both a practical and political problem looming if it continued its present course of action,” Kugler wrote.

Alamillo said the entire project process has been public and the remodel options were included in several discussions before they were eliminated. Scott said he raised the options during a State of the City address in January of this year. He added that a lot of work has been done by a lot of people to get the project to this stage.

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