DeKALB – Someone who visits the DeKalb Municipal Building to pay a water bill has to walk through an empty lobby, take the stairs or elevator to the second floor and follow the signs to the correct office.
It’s not the best customer-service experience, and it’s one of the things DeKalb leaders would like to change.
Although the City Council has discussed the need for renovations for years, the need has become painfully obvious since the police department moved, leaving about 12,000 square feet of empty space on the first floor. A study last summer addressed the required upgrades to the infrastructure of the building, as well as how city departments are using space.
City leaders are considering various segments of the community while planning for the renovations, but Mayor John Rey said the aldermen agree that the first priority is customer service.
“Our first concern is efficient, welcoming delivery of service,” Rey said. “The second is security.”
Security is the primary concern for Public Works Director T.J. Moore. With the police gone, the building isn’t staffed overnight, meaning it’s being locked for the first time since it opened in 1967.
“With no one on the first floor, we have people coming to the second floor unescorted to conduct their business,” Moore said.
That business might be paying a water bill or a parking ticket, and Moore said the finance department is willing to move to the first floor to make access easier.
“Most of the people that come here during business hours are here for finance-related items. Moving that department to the first floor is not an ideal scenario, but it will provide more security and better customer service,” Moore said. He said the staff in that department is moving this winter.
Fifth Ward Alderman Ron Naylor said discussions also have centered on consolidating all the city staff in one building.
“A common theme seems to be that everyone wants to see the staff in one building,” Naylor said.
Officials also must consider the people who visit the building Monday mornings for court, which is conducted in the second-floor council chambers. That arrangement has prompted security concerns as well.
Moore said it’s advantageous to have a court available in DeKalb, rather than forcing residents to go to the courthouse in Sycamore. But the long line of people waiting can be disruptive to the city offices on the second floor. He also noted that a knife was found in the elevator recently.
“I don’t have a good short-term solution on that issue,” Moore said.
Short-term solutions are helpful, but interim City Manager Rudy Espiritu said council members also need to consider the long-term ramifications.
“These are issues the council needs to be aware of,” Espiritu said. “We need to think long term, but we need to move forward on a renovation sooner rather than later.”
Yet another segment of the population to be considered is those who use the building as a warming or cooling center, or as a severe weather shelter. Such facilities can be in demand at times other than normal business hours.
“Storms can come up quickly, and it could take a staff member time to get here,” Moore said. “In the meantime, we would have people outside waiting to get in.”
Naylor suggested addressing storm shelters in the city’s emergency preparedness plans.
“We need an emergency shelter in the community,” he said.
Without knowing exactly what the council’s priorities are, Moore said it’s difficult to provide any kind of cost estimates.
“The cost of renovations can vary quite wildly. It depends on what degree you want to renovate,” Moore said. Even without a list of priorities, Moore said mechanical issues – new windows, heating, air conditioning – need to be addressed first.
Espiritu said about $6 million in tax increment financing funds are available to renovate the building.
“We won’t need to raise taxes to get the work done. If the TIF expires before remodeling is done, the funding won’t be there. Keep that in mind for the long term,” he said.
No matter what priorities the council sets, Moore said no deadline is required.
“We have time to agree on the best course of action possible,” Moore said. “It’s more important to get a good decision than a fast decision.”