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Torn From the Front Page: Saginaw City Hall obviously needs work, but will voters pay for it?

November 3, 2011


The roof leaks, the east stairway is closed, the heating is failing, the electrical system is overtaxed and state inspectors are determining if the air inside is healthy.
Without a doubt, Saginaw City Hall needs renovation and repair.
The only question is whether Saginaw citizens on Nov. 8 will agree to tax themselves to rebuild their historic City Hall, built in 1936, so it stands strong for another 50-75 years.
The Saginaw City Council is asking voters if they will pay a 1.2-mill property tax for 16 years for a $7 million bond to rebuild Saginaw City Hall. The tax would amount to $22.07 a year for the owner of the average Saginaw house with a taxable value of $18,392.
At its core, this vote is about more than the money. It’s about whether Saginawians are willing to invest in their City Hall, a symbol of solidity in a time of shifting economic fortunes.
This vote really comes down to sentiment, rather than keeping or improving a particular public service.
According to the Plante Moran Cresareport the city commissioned earlier this year to study its options regarding the dilapidating structure, rebuilding the place is the most cost-effective solution, but only barely.
Building a new 32,000-square-foot City Hall away from where the seat of city government has stood for 118 years would cost $7.87 million. Building a new 32,000-square-foot City Hall at 1315 S. Washington Ave. would cost $7.51 million. Continuing to defer major maintenance and make only emergency repairs — the plan that has failed City Hall after many years of cost-cutting — would cost who knows how much in the long run.
Or, restore Saginaw’s second City Hall, a 43,000-square-foot structure of Bay Port stone and art deco styling. The first City Hall that stood at the site burned down in 1935.
Fix it up, or let it go?
We stop short of a full endorsement of this proposal, not because we think there is any better option, but because this is where each and every voter will have to dig down into pockets and emotions and consider whether a building, a symbol, is worth keeping.
And while they are at it, Saginaw voters should also ponder why they have this sort of a la carte approach to funding government.
Saginaw leaders cut back major maintenance on City Hall years ago because they have to live within the tight constraints of the only tax-and-income limit imposed on any city in the nation. Seven times voters have refused a request to eliminate the 7.5-mill, $3.5 million operating tax cap that they tut into place in the late 1970s. 
Obviously, no municipality can run on the same money it got in the 1970s. Yet that’s what happens here in Saginaw. So, Saginaw can’t save for major projects, as its neighbor Bay City did recently to replace its City Hall roof.
So, Saginaw leaders go to voters for special taxes such as this City Hall proposal.
The neglect of maintenance at City Hall is, as some citizens have commented in Saginaw News articles, indeed inexcusable. But it’s hard to see how the city could have paid for maintenance, or to determine what services should have been cut to cobble together a building fund.
Like a lot of cash-poor homeowners these days, the city of Saginaw finds that deferred maintenance in the short run adds up to major expenses over the long haul.
Property owners who have struggled to keep hearth and home together through these many years of economic distress need to consider:
Is Saginaw City Hall, that historic symbol and seat of government, worth keeping?
Get out on Nov. 8, vote, and make your wishes known.
Don’t stay home and depend upon your neighbors to make this decision for you.
On Election Day, the fate of Saginaw City Hall hangs in the balance.
The original mLive article by The Saginaw News Editorial Board can be found here
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