‘It’s been painful to see this happen’; Police station and City Hall expansion on hold

St. George Police Department, St. George, Utah, June 6, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As a result of fiscal uncertainties during the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials announced that the expansion of the St. George Police station and City Hall have been put on hold.

Marc Mortensen, city of St. George support services director, told St. George News the city has put the brakes on the $17 million upgrades, which included a four-phase building project for a parking garage and upgrades to the city facilities.

“With regards to the Police Department and City Hall, these include expansion and remodel,” Mortensen said. “But we’ve pushed pause on these three projects.”

Phase one, a new 911 emergency communications center at the St. George City Commons Building, which began prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, is approximately 90% complete, Mortensen said. That buildout will continue, with the city planning to relocate its 911 capabilities this summer.

In regard to the other projects, Mortensen said the parking garage is “shovel ready” and is completely designed with the official stamp of approval for construction. City Hall is approximately 98% into its design phase and would have been ready to proceed in July.

St. George City Hall, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

“For the fiscal year 2020-21 recommended budget it does not have any of the maintaining projects in it,” Mortensen said. “Right now we don’t know when they will start.”

In anticipation of the expansions, leases on two temporary offices downtown had been signed, which city officials are now working to sublease so they are not on the financial hook to pay for empty buildings.

Community development, public works and administrative services were slated to move to the previous Spectrum Building, with the balance of city departments occupying an office at 600 South and 320 East.

“These leases are active right now,” Mortensen said. “Had we moved forward with our plan, we would have moved and been under construction right now. We would have occupied the (leased) buildings for up to 18 months.”

In addition to the two temporary offices, he added, there was another scheduled to house police personnel during its future expansion.

“Everything has been put on hold until further notice,” he said. “This has been something we’ve been working on for more than a year, with a ton of planning effort and coordination. It’s been painful to see this happen.”

According to city officials, when construction resumes, the completed projects will bring the city complex at 175 North and 200 East into the 21st century.

Built during the 1980s, when the size of St. George’s government was smaller, the two buildings in their current state have run out of space to house its employees.

“We have employees working in what would be considered closets and hallways,” Mortensen said. “We have no room for expansion if the city continues to grow. Obviously there was also dated technology, and better efficiencies that can be built into the new project.”

In previous years, City Hall housed every department with the need as the city grew to “farm” out employees to other offices. The city had considered constructing a new building but scrapped that idea because of the downtown’s convenient location.

“The new projects would have given us to 20 plus years of growth,” Mortensen said.

Rolling with the punches, the city plans to adopt new methods of business to accommodate continued growth.

St. George City Council virtual meeting via Zoom, St. George, Utah, April 16, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

These may include more employees working from home and online public access to city services such as filing building permits. The plan is to include a 311 center in City Hall for the public access to services and billing options as well.

“With the pandemic we’ve sped up timelines to offer services online,” Mortensen said.

One unintended, positive consequence has been the ability to conduct various government meetings over the internet, such as a Zoom GoToMeeting.

“Everyone is getting used to these, and they’ve been very effective,” Mortensen said. “There are a lot of employees who intend to use these services moving forward and spend less time driving to the office unless it is absolutely necessary.”

With less travel, Mortensen added, it will help with traffic congestion and traffic pollution.

“Moving forward, video conferencing will play a role in how we do business as a city,” he added.

Although the expansion and construction projects have been shelved for the next fiscal year, Mortensen said never say “never.”

It all depends on how the economy reacts and how the community recovers, he said.

Marc Mortensen, St. George support services director during a virtual city council meeting. St. George, Utah, May 7, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“During our budget cycle this year we took a very conservative approach and cut out most all capital projects unless they were absolutely necessary,” he said. “If there are funds available or it looks like we are making a strong recovery this fall or winter, then it would require a budget opening on council approval to reinstate the project during the 2020-21 fiscal year.”

This scenario seems “unlikely,” Mortensen added. “But this could change and we’ll adapt.”

When the projects do resume, they will take several months of planning to move forward, he said, so it will not be an immediate restart.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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