USDA loan sought to close funding gap
By Don Nelson
After nearly a decade of discussions, planning, revisions and delays, Twisp is preparing to construct a new civic building and regional communications center.
At its meeting last week, the Town Council accepted a bid by Leone & Keeble of Spokane to construct the new building on the same site as the existing town hall, which will be demolished.
The bid acceptance is contingent on the town receiving a loan of up a $1.5 million from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development program to cover a construction funding gap, and indications are the loan request will be approved soon, the council learned last week.
The USDA loan will augment the approximately $3 million the town already has available for the building’s construction.
Construction bids, which were opened on Feb. 24, came in higher than the projected cost of about $2.835 million. The lowest bid of the three submitted was $3.587 million by Leone & Keeble. Other bids ranged up to $4.497 million.
The construction contract with Leone & Keeble, as approved by the council, comes to $3,518,400. Sales tax, contingency funds, management and other related costs bring the total projected cost to $4,620,122.
The town’s total available funding comes to $3,120,122, leaving the $1.5 million gap. Available funds include several state capital budget appropriations, a state Department of Commerce community development block grant, and town reserve funds that have accumulated toward the project.
In May 2020, the first round of construction bids for the new building came in about $1 million higher than the $3 million cost estimated at the time by Architects West, the Idaho-based firm that is designing the facility. That caused construction on the project, which was expected to begin last summer, to be postponed to this year.
For most of the past year, Public Works Director Andrew Denham and his staff have been “value engineering” the building’s specs to bring costs down.
At last week’s meeting, Town Clerk Randy Kilmer told the council that he had met with a representative of the USDA that day to discuss the loan request and was verbally assured that “nothing stands in the way” of approval. He said the paperwork would take two to three weeks to process. The town is not required to use all of the $1.5 million, Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said.
Kilmer said that if no other funds are available and town takes on the entire USDA loan amount, payments would amount to about $4,700 a month over a 40-year payback period.
Plans to replace the building began to take shape in 2011, after repairs to a leaky roof brought other problems to light.
The town discovered that the 70-year-old former fire hall had hollow perimeter walls, after which the town reinforced them with concrete. The building also lacks ventilation; has inefficient heating and cooling systems; lacks storage for public records; has limited access for disabled persons; and has no emergency exit from the council chambers, which also house the municipal court.
The wildfire disaster and subsequent power and communications outages in 2014 also made clear the need for a building that could serve as a command center during future emergencies, town officials concluded.
The new one-story building was determined to need more square footage than the current town hall. To make room for construction of the new civic building, the Twisp Council approved vacating a portion of Third Avenue.
The project has always had its critics, who have questioned the need for a new building, protested the vacation of part of Third Avenue, objected to the costs involved and suggested that the town could pursue other options such as buying and renovating an existing building, or building a less-expensive facility at a different site.
Opposition surfaced again before last week’s council meeting. A truck was parked in front of Town Hall with a sign proclaiming that the cost of the new town hall would be $5,775,450 and that it would be “paid for by raising your taxes.”
Neither of those claims is accurate, Ing-Moody said at the council meeting.
A petition also was circulated, collecting signatures supporting a request that the USDA not provide a loan to the town. The wording of the petition, which was signed by about 210 people, reads in part:
“The residents and Business owners of the Town of Twisp who have signed below, request that the Proposed Loan from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, Washington State Capital Appropriations and the Washington CDBG for the Twisp Civic Center and emergency operations center be withdrawn. This request is being made because all bids submitted for this construction in the last 2 years were in excess of Grants received. The TAX Payers of this small community CAN NOT afford this project.”
The USDA has no jurisdiction over state appropriations. Town taxes have not been raised to support the project. Under state law, local taxes cannot be increased by more than 1% year without voter consent.
A cover letter sent along with the petition asserts that it “reflects their [residents and business owners] solemn voice, where they have had none regarding this project. … Our direct request is to pause the loan process and at the very least examine the need for further public input.”
The claim that residents have had no voice in the project flies in the face of reality. Over the past decade, the project has been discussed at numerous public meetings where comments were allowed, including presentations by the architects in which public feedback was heard and incorporated into planning. Critics have often appeared at council meetings to pose questions about the project, which town officials have answered consistently and at length. Documents associated with the project have been available for public review. Dozens of news stories have been written about the process.
At least week’s council meeting, Ing-Moody read 15 letters of support (including several from business owners) for the project, and three letters that expressed opposition. Mark and Leone Edson’s letter of opposition reads, in part:
“I’m sure you have all seen our truck parked in front of City Hall the last few days and are aware that we have been passing around a petition pertaining to the USDA Loan … It’s not too late to reconsider and stop this loan process. People are truly concerned and have reservations on additional taxation, not to mention the large amount of money that will be spent on such a project.”
Ing-Moody, who has been mayor throughout the civic building planning process, is characteristically diplomatic in her responses to critics. But during last week’s council meeting and in a subsequent interview, she was more blunt in her assessment of recent attempts to derail the civic building.
Ing-Moody, citing the need for “full transparency … and to have all the facts before you,” directly addressed the petition and parked truck action at the council meeting. “Everything in that sign is absolutely incorrect,” the mayor said of the parked truck. “It is a misrepresentation of the facts.”
Citing a process that dates back to 2011, when the current Town Hall was determined to be a “a compromised, unsafe facility,” Ing-Moody noted that “this project was not born overnight.” Renovating the existing building is not feasible, and the town looked into other options such as acquiring an existing building but found those unworkable, she said. The devastating Carlton Complex Fire of 2014 demonstrated that the existing building, which had no backup power or communications system, “did not serve our community at all.”
Ing-Moody said it has always been the council’s intention to pay for the building without any additional local taxes. The mayor pledged to continue looking for additional grants and appropriations so that the USDA loan is not necessary, or at least not all of it.
“The overall desire is to have zero debt on this project,” she said. “We are working on making that happen.” She said the USDA loan is “a stopgap measure to be able move the project forward.”
“We would prefer not to have to use it,” Ing-Moody said of the USDA loan. “We won’t tap into the loan until all other funds are used. We don’t expect to increase property taxes.”
As to a voter-approved bond issue, Ing-Moody pointed out that repaying a bond issue would require the town to raise local taxes.
The building’s design was “fully vetted” in a series of public meetings, and results of a community survey were incorporated into the building’s design, architect Steve Roth said at last week’s meeting.
“Everything in the building is a direct response to [public] comments,” Roth said.
He noted that anyone taking on major projects “has been fighting rising construction costs, especially over the last year,” as well as labor and materials shortages. “The price you are getting here really is reasonable in the current construction climate.”
During council discussion, council member Hans Smith said the new civic building is “a high-value project for the citizens … to replace a building that’s not going to serve us much longer … it’s time to do it.”
Council member Alan Caswell — citing the results of the most recent town elections in which Ing-Moody and incumbent council members were re-elected with 70% voter approval over critics of the civic building — said he feels confident that a majority of the town supports the project. He said it would be a disservice to the town not to proceed with the building. His motion to accept the construction bid was approved unanimously.
In an interview last week, Ing-Moody reiterated that assertions in the petition and the truck’s sign were incorrect. “It’s a lie,” she said of the implication that the building would cost more than has been discussed publicly, or that local taxes would need to be raised to support it. “We need to get beyond the misinformation and disinformation.”
“It was a last-ditch effort as a distraction away from the facts,” Ing-Moody said of the petition effort, which she described as “circumventing the will of the people, to sabotage and jeopardize the funding … I’m disappointed and saddened to see so many people misled by these untruths.”
She added that a civic building advisory committee has been in existence in one form or another for nine years “and reviewed every option … the decision [to replace town hall with a new building] was made long ago.” The public has had opportunities to participate during all that time, she said.
The most recent complaints about the project, Ing-Moody said, “are all based on false assumptions that it’s not needed.”
Ing-Moody remains confident that the building will be fully funded and the town will be the better for it.
“I feel we’re going to get there,” the mayor said. “It will come with hard work, as always.”