August 23, 2023

Public Works Moving to New Temporary Space

Unlike other city facilities, the Public Works administration building generally isn’t public facing.  So understandably it doesn’t always get the most attention; out of sight, out of mind.  But that doesn’t make it any less essential to providing the critical infrastructure and services we all depend on, and which are fundamental to our health and wellbeing:  clean drinking water, wastewater treatment, solid waste collection, streets and drainage.  We’re currently in the process of moving the Public Works department into a leased commercial office, on South Rice just outside the City, because they are in desperate need of functional space as we finally get underway with planning for a new facility.

After the old building flooded—again—in the 2015 Memorial Day event, the City Council at the time approved tearing it down and beginning to work toward a permanent replacement.  With FEMA disaster funding and insurance proceeds the City purchased a used trailer to house Public Works on a temporary basis, intended to last “at least two years.”  It has now been more than seven.

A year after it was placed into service the trailer was damaged in Hurricane Harvey and the flooring and crawlspace insulation had to be replaced.  Since then its condition has continued to deteriorate further, even to the point that staff members have stepped through holes in the floor.  Moreover, among other issues at the Public Works campus the trailer does not have sufficient capacity and is not conducive to a productive and supportive working environment.  What may have once been an acceptable temporary solution is no longer sustainable.

Successive Councils have certainly been aware of the plan for a new building—eventually—but less so of the worsening condition of the trailer (we don’t regularly go over there any more than the public does).  The new building, and specifically the need to come up with funding for it, has been carried over from year to year as a future project in the Capital Improvement Plan, but as yet hasn’t been advanced.  Whether due to personnel and leadership changes or simply competition with other priorities, it has pretty much just stayed there in the background.  Until now.

The City Manager took note early in the first year of her tenure, as she visited and became more familiar with each of our facilities.  What really brought home the urgency of the situation was the recruiting process for a Public Works Director, which sharpened her focus on existing shortcomings and impediments to the department’s ability to function properly.  We’re turning things around over there, and the physical environment is a huge part of that.  The City Manager and her new Public Works Director have duly reprioritized the necessity of a permanent structure, and they have Council’s unanimous support.

They began by dusting off the Public Works Facility Assessment prepared by the City’s architects back in 2015 and updated as part of the Facilities Master Plan in 2019, as a starting point from which to resume our long-term planning.  It’s useful that we’ve already analyzed the department’s projected future space needs and evaluated various reconstruction scenarios as we set out to design a new building.  The report also provides an overview of flooding challenges at the existing site, noting that “[m]any of the options presented ... do not address this risk, but simply allow for minimized costs to recover from future flooding events.”  The resulting recommendation is that only relocation “offers complete elimination of these risks and should be strongly considered.”

In the meantime, earlier this summer the City Manager negotiated, and Council approved, a five-year lease on a suitable commercial office space with attached bay that’s very nearby.  With only limited modifications it will serve us well in the transition, and definitely better than the old trailer.  We’re confident we can have a new building ready before the end of the lease, and our committing to this timeframe will help us stay on track and demonstrates we’re serious about getting it done.

With the prior facility assessment in hand we’ve got a bit of a head start on the physical planning, but equally important will be figuring out how we’re going to pay for it.  While any discussion of funding is only preliminary, it’s reasonable to expect a bond election in the next few years to cover all or a portion of the cost, perhaps coupled with other capital projects.  That’ll be for a future Council, and ultimately the voters, to decide.