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Columbia Lot, looking east. The western half of the existing parking lot is the strongest candidate for a new police facility. 

Hood River City Council will hold a joint meeting with Hood River County Board of Commissioners for the second time in a month on Oct. 13 at 3 p.m. Earlier, the two bodies met to hear a Covid-19 update from County Health Department officials.

Next week’s meeting is held on a Tuesday rather than the usual Monday because of the Oct. 12 Indigenous Peoples Day holiday, observed by all government agencies. City Council will hold its regular meeting (and monthly Urban Renewal Agency meeting) at 6 p.m. on Oct. 13.

The main purpose of the city-county joint meeting will be to update elected officials and staff on the work of the Hood River County Energy Council. See city and county websites next week for information on how to access the meeting.

In its meeting last week, City Council took the expected next step toward developing a new police facility, at the city-owned parking lot at Fifth and Columbia, known as Columbia Lot. The move is one that may involve the county in building a joint police facility and county justice building.

By 4-2 vote, after a lengthy discussion of other locations the city has looked at -- including the nearby Cascade Lot, State Street lot, and the current Hood River pool -- the council decided to approve a staff recommendation to go out for bids by architectural firms to do cost estimates and preliminary designs on “plan A” -- a city police facility -- and “plan B” -- a facility jointly built with Hood River County. The process, known as Request For Proposals (RFP) is required for large public expenditures.

The architectural study is expected to cost at least $75,000 and $250,000, taking in consideration both plans A and B. (Corrections: that range updates a different figure provided in a story published on-line. Also, an incorrect council vote was given.)

City manager Rachael Fuller said “This is a very rough estimate and we will not have a final number until we receive the responses to the RFP.”

“After we receive the responses, we will work through a cost share with the County depending on which path is chosen by the governing bodies,” Fuller said. The wide cost range “is meant to encompass all partnership possibilities,” Fuller said.

Mayor Kate McBride noted, “We are not yet voting on putting out a bond. We need information and it’s going to cost us to get some information.”

Fuller also confirmed that “the final contract needs to come back to council for approval and award.”

The county has not committed to partnering in the project.

Plans A and B

Plan A, estimated at $13 million, would also include a parking garage to replace the 100 spaces that would be lost if the project went ahead. It would be funded by 20 years of municipal bonds, an extension of the current 70 cents per thousand property owners are charged to pay off the existing fire station bond, meaning no additional tax to city residents. Plan B would be larger and more expensive, as much as $36 million, and would require an additional bond approval by Hood River County voters. With Plan B, there would be no room for a parking structure, meaning the city would need to identify new parking property, and find a way to pay for it.

Assistant City Manager Will Norris said the RFP “will go into design estimate and get us to a pretty good solid design, so we can go to voters with the knowledge we don’t have cost over-runs. We need a new site ‘test fit’ and if it is appropriate, also need a place to put parking. Once we have a site plan, it gives us an estimate to work with: go with A and B, get both together, and present to the county so they have a pricetag to see if they want to proceed.”

Norris pointed out that a consultant’s study of eight potential sites showed Columbia Lot as the clear favorite based on the fact it is city owned, as well as its location, size, flat topography and existence of all utilities

Columbia Lot has “very low cost of development, particularly because as there is impact on parking we can bring in Urban Renewal funding to assist with that,” Norris noted. The site is within the Cascade-Columbia Urban Renewal Tax District, which has a working fund drawn from incremental tax revenue to be for capital development.

“A key consideration,” according to Norris, “is that we have a lot of momentum and want to stick with a November 2021 ballot target.” The city wants to act before the current fire station bond expires in 2023.

Both plans are likely to include participation, and funding, by Columbia Gorge Child Advocacy Center, which has expressed firm interest in co-locating. It would expand CGCAC’s space to about 4,000 square feet, up from its current 1,300-square-foot leased space on the Heights.

A larger discussion

Voting yes were Mark Zanmiller, Megan Saunders and Gladys Rivera, and Mayor Kate McBride. Zanmiller, who was strongest in his concern over the bid-approval being a tacit commitment to develop the site, gave it an “uneasy yes”. Tim Counihan voted no and Erick Haynie cast an “uneasy no.” (Council Member Jessica Metta was not present.)

However, council members expressed reservations that going ahead with architects’ bids essentially commits the city to building on Columbia Lot, and suggested the Columbia Lot could be considered for other projects.

“For me, it’s the siting,” Zanmiller said of the focus on Columbia Lot. “I’m prepared to vote for it but I think we’re buying the horse right now. We’re voting to decide on this site and go out for a bond, unless something interesting happens. I could vote for this site and I don’t doubt there is a real need. There are positives to this. I think the process sort of led us to a pre-decision on this.”

Counihan said, “I agree with Mark. If we vote on this we are voting on in all likelihood with voting on proceeding with a facility on this parking lot and putting out a bond request. I have some trepidations about that as well.”

He added, “I’m not thrilled with creating a whole lot more automobile vehicle parking downtown. We should be discouraging people from driving downtown.” He added, “There other things we could do with that property. It has value, and is actually a very unique piece of property. Once it’s used for this particular purpose, that’s what it is.

Counihan added, “if we can develop a scenario where the entirety of the bond is not needed of the facility and apply some of the bond to affordable housing; that seems to me a very desireable outcome. It would be great to use some of the taxing burden as a way to bolster our affordable housing supply.”

Council member Gladys Rivera said the occasion might allow the use dollars “to allocate so we have more staffing of mental health professionals.”

Police chief Neal Holste commented that CGCAC director Beatriz Lynch “has the funding now, but no space,” for more mental health professionals.

Rivera said, “It would be exciting, because can we collaborate and share resources, so we are having a more appropriate response to some of our residents’ needs, such as a mental health or substance abuse issue, with a mental health professional going out rather than a police officer.”

Holste said, “We haven’t talked about reaching beyond law enforcement. Law enforcement responds before any one else to deem it safe. We’re always going to be there, we will always be required to, because others will not go until the area is safe. We have resources today to call in mental health to help out; the problem is the amount of staff available to utilize that,” Holste said, stating that resources are stretched thin throughout the Gorge region.

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