Sewer line problems in the Newton Public Works office space may force the city to seek out another building to house its 15 staff members, representing two departments and several other divisions for the City of Newton.
Public Works Director Jody Rhone updated the city council of the property’s struggles in a staff report Jan. 21, following the regular council meeting agenda items. Of the two existing sewer lines at the North Fourth Avenue West property, only the pipe directed out from the shop section of the building is functioning properly.
On the east side of the building near the offices, Rhone said the other sewer line, an old Orangeburg pipe, which is typically made from compressed layers of wood pulp and pitch, is collapsing and requires weekly maintenance to remain operational. Staff must routine hydro-jet the sewer line to eliminate any blockages.
Originally a John Deere dealership, the Newton Public Works building was acquired by the city sometime in the mid- or late-1980s and was remodeled and added on to multiple times. Rhone said the property was never intended to be used as office space. Furthermore, some employees have complained about working conditions and said the building does not provide a good impression to visitors.
Before the sewer line problems, Rhone said he looked at possibly affixing a new addition to the east side of the building, including a basement to store plans, plats and other files, while also serving as a shelter for employees or visiting members of the public during severe storms; something that became increasingly important when multiple tornadoes touched down and caused considerable damage to areas adjacent to Jasper County in July 2018.
Currently, the public works building has 4,100 square feet of office space, which would be increased to 5,900 square feet with the new addition, as well as another 1,800 square feet for the basement shelter.
When it came time to assess a possible price tag for constructing the new addition and other amenities, Rhone realized it would cost “an awful lot of money” for the office space constructed from an old pole barn rife with insulation problems.
“And with the amount of people that have been relocated to the public works building, we’re completely out of office space,” Rhone told the council. “We don’t even have enough phone system for every person that works in the office out there to have a phone in their office. We’ve outgrown our space.”
An alternative building
Rhone determined Newton Public Works may have to move its offices elsewhere to avoid further sewer line issues. Weighing out his options, Rhone looked to the empty corporate offices of Maytag Building 20 as a possible space for public works to negotiate a longterm rent agreement. He claimed the move is the more cost-efficient option.
The public works director presented a spreadsheet to the council detailing a side-by-side comparison of what he estimated it would cost to remodel the current building and how much money would likely be spent if the city rented the 12,500 square feet office space in Maytag Building 20.
If public works were to construct its new addition, added two new restrooms and installed an updated phone system and server, Rhone estimated the total cost to remodel the facility would be $322,000. Conversely, he estimated moving to and leasing Maytag Building 20 would likely cost $150,000 to replace the carpet, upgrade lighting, add an entryway and security measures, purchase conference tables and chairs, set up a communications system and create signage.
The existing public works building, Rhone proposed, could then be renovated in place of a new site for parks staff. He estimated the new building would cost about $150,000 to demolish most of the office space and install heating, an overhead door and interior renovations, as well as other miscellaneous construction costs. Both the parks mechanic and city garage mechanic offices would be housed in the constructed building.
Left unattended, Rhone claimed the current public works building would need to be rebuilt in no later than 10 years if the city intends to keep it as an office. Rhone said he spoke with two architects that told him if the city were to build a new commercial public works office with 12,500 square feet of space — the same amount proposed in Maytag Building 20 lease — then it would cost around $2.2 million.
Rhone envisioned the shop would not grant public access and be entirely fenced in. If the public needed to visit Newton Public Works, they would need to travel to the Maytag Building 20 location instead.
Rhone also factored in a 20-year cost for both options. He estimated rent payments for 20 years at the Maytag Building 20 office would cost $640,625. Combined with the start-up costs and the park shop conversion estimates (about $150,000 each), Rhone assessed the total to move in and renovate the old Maytag corporate offices would be around $940,625 over 20-year period.
If Newton Public Works was to stay in its current facility, fix its problems and install the new addition, Rhone said it would ultimately cost $1,458,151 in a 20-year period. Combined with the $2.2 million new building he claimed is needed in less than 10 years, the total 20-year estimate totaled $3,656,151.
After touring the vacant Maytag Building 20 offices, city council member Lin Chapé commended the locale for the amount of space it provided. If Newton Public Works were to move in, Rhone said the facility’s freestanding walls can be shifted to fit the needs of staff. He also claimed using the space could possibly encourage other businesses to fill the remaining areas in the former Maytag buildings and offices.
Moving forward with Rhone’s plan has an advantage, Chapé said, for the city and its continued partnership with Des Moines Area Community College, which owns the collection of Maytag buildings known as Legacy Plaza. In favor of a solution, Chapé liked the “workflow efficiencies” created from the park shop conversion and is also concerned of the safety of staff in the event of a tornado, stating that she prays it will not happen.
Rhone said his staff are “extremely in favor” of the move and ensuing conversion of the previous space. Economically, he said, it makes sense. Although he did admit there may be a potential downside he overlooked, coaxing the council for further feedback to his report.
Council member Evelyn George said enough money had already been spent on the public works building to change it into an office space. Putting more staff and more money into the current facility she added, “is concerning.”
George said the space is not well-organized and does not help employees to be efficient or effective. She also drew criticism to staff spending time of managing their own facility’s faults when they “could be serving the citizens a little more effectively” outside the office.
“I also think that this is where our builders and developers are coming to meet with our staff — it’s a reflection on them,” George said. “We need a professional environment.”
Newton Mayor Mike Hansen made the council aware it was the first time they had seen the breakdown of costs and revealed he had been given the information a lot longer than they have. He cautioned council members to “not be so quick” with their decisions if it comes time to take action on the fate of the public works building.
“There is some information that we need better details on,” Hansen told the council Jan. 21. “I have always been a proponent we should own and not rent. We’ve had that facility out there for umpteen years. Yes, it needs a facelift, but we can facelift that building and take care of the things that Jody has pointed out for a lot less than $900,000.”
Hansen suggested gathering more details about what it would cost to remodel and construct a new addition like Rhone had proposed. He also questioned the 20-year lease and utilities rates Rhone projected. In particular, Hansen said no one has a “crystal ball” to foresee the exact amounts; the price tags for rent are not certain.
“I just want you to slow down and make sure that all of the costs of either owning the facilities out there versus leasing the building, that we have everything that we know,” Hansen said.
After hearing the council’s and mayor’s suggestions, Rhone reminded them that he wants to act on this fast.
“We do have an eminent need,” Rhone said. “We’re either going to spend a bunch of money on a bathroom and a sewer line or we’re not.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org