Bellingham needs to catch up on building maintenance

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 28, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Many municipal buildings already are in poor shape and will continue to deteriorate unless the city can find millions more to spend on their upkeep every year, according to a new report.

Eric Johnston, Bellingham's assistant director of public works, said the city has been spending about $400,000 annually in recent years on building maintenance projects, but that's not nearly enough to keep up with the needs of aging city buildings. The condition of those buildings has been slowly declining, and the city would need to spend at least $3 million a year to keep pace with maintenance needs and gradually improve the buildings' overall condition.

Johnston based his statements on a recently completed condition assessment of all major city buildings that scored them on a standard measure called the Facility Condition Index - an unusual system in which a perfect score is zero, and the higher the score, the worse the building.

On average, the city buildings scored 21 on that index. Any building above 10 is considered to be in poor condition.

Averages can't tell the whole story. The newest major building, the Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher, scored a perfect zero, and the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center got a respectable 7.

But those two buildings are like the smart kids who wreck the class curve. Without those scores, the average would have been much worse. The Mount Baker Theatre is an 11; the Federal Building scored 23; the old city hall and museum building on Prospect Street is a 32; City Hall got a 37; Municipal Court scored 39; the Central Library is a 41 and the Yew Street Fire Station is the class clown with 47.

All the buildings are safe and structurally sound, but all buildings need refurbishing at times. The Yew Street Fire Station is an example. Johnston said the building was completed in 1988 and needs repainting, new carpeting and lighting fixtures.

Johnston recently presented the assessment's findings to City Council. He said the assessment takes account of maintenance needs that are not obvious to those who use or work in the buildings. He cited the library as an example.

"Some of the problems are things you can't necessarily see," he told council members. "Is the roof leaking? No. Does it need some maintenance to keep it from leaking? Yes."

In some cases, Johnston said, replacement may make more sense than pouring money into buildings that are in poor condition. An example might be the municipal court building, a converted church that city officials would like to replace.

But many city buildings have historic value and are not likely to be replaced any time soon despite high maintenance costs, City Facilities Manager Myron Carlson told the council.

In a later interview, Johnston said he doesn't think it likely that the council will be able to find extra millions in the city budget in the next year or two, but it would be advisable to start gradually shifting spending priorities toward increased building maintenance to eventually reach a target of about $3 million per year.

"If we can develop a plan to move toward that target, that would be a good strategy," Johnston said, adding that inadequate maintenance spending now will mean higher spending on emergency repairs later.

Mayor Kelli Linville agrees. She has identified increased maintenance spending as a goal for her administration.

She said she hopes the council will agree to make building maintenance a top priority for use of any tax revenue surplus above reserve fund needs. She also hopes that the city can raise some money from sales of surplus properties and plow that money back into existing properties, although she doesn't expect any major windfalls.

"Maintaining our public facilities is a responsibility of the city," Linville said. "Nobody else is going to do it for us."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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