Pandemic pinches Dunedin's plans for big-budget projects

City Manager Jennifer Bramley urged commissioners to remain committed to moving forward with plans for a new City Hall downtown, shown in a rendering.

DUNEDIN — Bracing for a reduction in sales tax revenue stemming from the novel coronavirus, city officials spoke in favor of shelving plans to build a new parking garage and aquatic center in the near future.

However, at the advice of City Manager Jennifer Bramley, they remain committed to moving forward with plans for a new City Hall downtown, though the complex could be scaled back.

"We wanted to get the Penny (for Pinellas) in front of you as quickly as possible, recognizing there are some projects you are going to have to move off and move out," she said at the commission's May 15 meeting.

Dunedin Finance Director Les Tyler provided scenarios involving the city's share of the Penny for Pinellas, which generated $4.1 million for the city in fiscal year 2019. He showed charts to commissioners that projected a 3.4% drop in sales tax revenue for fiscal year 2020.

The cost to construct the complex at Wood Street and Louden Avenue has been pegged at $15.4 million. The new City Hall is estimated to contain about 39,000 square feet of programming space with a two-story administrative wing and a single-story commission chamber.

Bramley strongly supported continuing to move forward with the new complex, explaining that city officials are housed in several offices besides the current City Hall on Main Street.

"The City Hall building is beyond obsolete," she said.

But she added that she wanted to discuss the idea of delaying plans for a new aquatic center to replace the existing pool at Highlander Park and for a new parking garage. Delaying the parking garage is expected to save the city $3.5 million.

Commissioner Moe Freaney said the City Hall project needed to be done 25 years ago but was deferred repeatedly.

"In a lot of ways, we wasted a lot of money moving walls around trying to make something that wasn't good into something workable for staff," Freaney said.

She pointed out that the new complex will be a 100-year building.

"And we're going to build it right after this pandemic that maybe has a two-year life cycle that's affecting our economy, so I don't want to be shortsighted about it," Freaney said.

Other commissioners suggested the possibility of scaling the City Hall project down. But there was little support for giving the garage a high priority. They talked about delaying it until fiscal year 2025.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said that new development projects on the east end of town will be built in ensuing years and will need extra parking spaces. Getting the chance to see how many vehicles of city employees and users of the new City Hall will be parked at the current Wood Street lot will help city officials gauge what their next steps should be, she said.

"We tried to make a lot of compromises on that parking garage to make a lot of people happy, and maybe starting over is the way to go. But doing that four years down the road, five years down the road with a lot more knowledge, I think will serve us well," she said.

Meanwhile, commissioners are leaning toward a plan to renovate the pool and delaying plans for a new aquatic center. According to the latest five-year business plan budget commissioners discussed several months ago, the facility was slated to be built in 2022 for an estimated $6.4 million.

Regarding the potential for a second wave of the virus, Commissioner Deborah Kynes said she is concerned about being too optimistic that sales tax revenue will return to current levels. Tyler said his projections are based on not having a second wave.

"If we have a second wave, and we are forced to shut down again, these projections will change," he said.

"I think we are in real uncharted waters," Kynes said.