Archive for Monday, September 2, 2002

Pricey changes unpopular during lean budget year

September 2, 2002

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— The Statehouse walls are cracking. And so is legislative support for the building's multimillion-dollar renovation.

Architects say the Statehouse cracks have been there for years, signs of more than eight decades of neglect.

Critics concede that may be true but insist the fractures are symbolic of an irresponsible approach to an eight-year, $135 million plan to restore the historic building to its original grandeur. Restoration is one matter, they say, but building a parking garage and putting a statue on the Capitol dome are jumbled priorities at best.

"In this particular environment, when you're seeing real cuts to education and social services, it seems like priorities are just out of kilter when you see these projects going on and at the same time you see serious cuts to direct services," said House Minority Leader Jim Garner, D-Coffeyville.

The state's budget woes are only expected to worsen in time for the next legislative session, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, so lawmakers will be looking closely at the restoration.

"A lot of legislators are going to be questioning whether we should proceed with the entire restoration process," the Topeka Democrat said.

Jeff Russell, director of legislative administrative services, defends the project.

"While folks question why we're doing any of this, you need to understand this building is, parts of it are, well over 130 years old," he said.

A messy endeavor

Think of the middle of your messiest home-improvement project, and you get an idea of what the Capitol looks like.

The north steps are chewed up; workers are digging a mammoth hole that becomes a lake when it rains; the dome is webbed with scaffolding, and the inside rotunda is marked off-limits by a yellow chain. On the grounds, chain-link fencing and plywood partitions are sprouting everywhere.

Excavation for a 561-car, $13.59 million underground parking garage began last winter in the Capitol's north lawn. The massive hole now awaits foundation and framing work.

Another project  unrelated to the restoration plan, though deeply intertwined with the building's history  has contractors shoring up the Statehouse dome at a cost of $750,000 in preparation for placement of the statue of a Kansa Indian.

Russell and lawmakers have deemed the parking garage necessary, noting that during session, legislators and staff fill parking spots on the grounds, leaving no room for members of the public who want to participate in state government.

Two-hundred of the 550-plus spots will be reserved for public use. And the north grounds will be restored to a plaza-type atmosphere with grass, trees and landscaping when the garage is complete. It's scheduled to open in December 2003.

Legislators tacked the parking garage onto the final version of the budget for fiscal year 2002.

Lawrence architect

Lawrence-based Treanor Architects and J.E. Dunn Construction Co. of Topeka are being paid for their work on the project with a portion of the $55 million in bonds issued to finance the first phase of restoration.

Other plans for the renovation include restoring many Statehouse offices to the way they looked in 1917, the last time the building underwent a comprehensive facelift. The basement will become the main working area, complete with offices for the Legislature's permanent staff and media. A new visitors' center will be added to the basement's north end to welcome people as they enter the building through the parking garage.

In October, crews expect to hoist into place a 2-ton addition to the Statehouse dome. The statue has become a major line on Gov. Bill Graves' list of tasks to do before leaving office, despite opposition from many in the Legislature.

Last session, Graves vetoed a bill that would have prevented him from using state funds to pay for reinforcement of the dome for the 21-foot-tall statue. A motion by Hensley to override the veto failed.

Friday, Rep. Lana Gordon, R-Topeka, asked Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall for a legal opinion on whether Graves has the authority to force the funding through. Stovall has not said when she will issue a decision.

Frivolous spending?

Hensley contends the project is a frivolous use of taxpayers' money and noted an ironic twist in the governor's recent announcement of $41 million in further cuts: The Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Kansas Highway Patrol lost about $750,000.

"Obviously, the money to reinforce the dome could have been used to save those two agencies from cuts," he said. "At a time when everyone's concerned with homeland security, we shouldn't shortchange two agencies who are in charge of security."

For now, however, the restoration proceeds as planned  and with as much care as possible, those involved say.

"There's been a lot of time spent on planning, on looking at the historic building, researching its original design, researching how it's changed over time, what are its significant features," said Vance Kelley, a historic preservation architect with Treanor Architects and a project manager for the restoration. "They (critics) will eventually, of course, see the end product and hopefully be very satisfied at that time."

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