Before taking up the public safety levy Monday night, the Billings City Council took two actions that diverged from staff recommendations.

Council members approved the sole bid, for $35,500, for a property at 1146 Grand Ave., even though city staff recommended they reject the bid and try again to sell the property.

And they waived a $21,945.07 fee recommended as compensation for a street right-of-way vacation that a nonprofit needs to construct five Southside duplexes.

The land under the Grand Avenue property, which is bordered by a pawn shop, is worth more than $100,000, said Vern Heisler, Billings deputy public works director. But the demolition costs are unknown, “and we want to know what we are getting into before we take a wrecking ball to something,” he said.

The city acquired the property to widen Grand Avenue about seven years ago.

Representing a bid made by his father, Max Griffin, Chandler Griffin said that “all we can do is knock it down and use it for parking.” He estimated demolition cost to be about $50,000.

He said his father hopes to “optimize that corner of Grand and revitalize the area. The more we let it sit and rot, it brings down the value of other buildings,” including adjacent buildings that Max Griffin owns.

“There are a number of blighted and becoming-blighted locations along Grand Avenue,” said Councilwoman Becky Bird. “I prefer to allow someone in the private sector to take it and run with it.”

“The property is landlocked and access is limited,” said Mayor Tom Hanel. “It is an unknown factor of what may be inside that building. If we reject the bid and find $75,000 worth of asbestos (inside the building), shame on us.”

The vote to accept the bid was unanimous.

In the second case, Eric Basye, executive director of Community Leadership & Development Inc., said his organization is “trying to create quality, affordable housing” in Billings’ South Side neighborhood. At the end of his presentation, he asked, “Would the council consider a discount on vacating that street?”

Indeed council members would, and did, waiving the fee entirely.

“This area is not doing anything for us,” Councilman Ken Crouch said. “They plan to do something more by putting in extra sidewalks and other amenities.”

The duplexes, which will be constructed for about $675,000, will be built at the corner of Orrel and Monroe streets. Steve Houlihan, who runs a construction company co-owned by CLDI, said construction will start next month and be completed within 18 months.

“I almost lost my suspension driving down this road,” said Councilman Mike Yakawich, who represents a South Side ward. “What they are going to do with this area will come back to us 10 times” in additional property taxes, he predicted.

The council voted 9-2, with Shaun Brown and Brent Cromley casting the dissenting votes, to waive the right-of-way purchase price.

After some discussion, the council voted 8-3 to award a bid of $113,670 to Rehbein Enterprises Inc. of Polson to construct the Aronson Bypass Trail at Swords Park. Two Billings firms, Knife River Construction and CMG Construction, asked the council to disqualify Rehbin’s apparent low bid because the company did not reinsert its bid documents into the project manual.

City Attorney Brent Brooks told the council that bidding rules are in place “for the protection of taxpayers and not for the competing companies.” He said that Rehbin’s action did not prevent the other companies from having their bids considered “fully and fairly” and said that placing bid documents in the project manual is done for the convenience of the project engineer.

Council members Bird, Denis Pitman and Jani McCall voted against the bid award.

The council also heard an update on the Empire Parking Garage from Bruce McCandless, assistant city administrator, who said the structure on Montana Avenue probably won’t be ready for the public until August.

The council was asked to approve a $54,652.58 change order, the seventh on the nearly $13 million project, for signs inside the garage, an electricity conduit, the removal and replacement of most of the sidewalk and stamped concrete on all three of the garage frontages, the addition of two walls to separate the retail ownerships on Montana Avenue and the application of graffiti-resistant coating on most of the garage’s lower surfaces.

The need for new sidewalk is an example of what officials could not predict in the original contract, McCandless said.

“You just don’t know what it will look like,” he said. “You see the old compared to the new, and it’s a pretty obvious difference.”

Pitman said the project is “coming down to brass tacks” and that there shouldn’t be so many surprise costs this late in the project.

“Value engineering seems to reverse itself at the end of a project,” he said.

McCandless said there’s about $150,000 remaining in the project’s contingency fund.


City reporter for The Billings Gazette.

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