VALDOSTA -- Big changes are underway at City Hall which officials hope will bring a new level of response and service to residents.

The city recently completed renovations on the City Hall Annex, located at the corner of Lee and Valley streets, and hopes to have the building fully staffed and operational within a month, according to City Manager Larry Hanson.

The structure, formerly owned by Lee Street Baptist Church, was purchased and renovated by the city at a cost of $2.63 million. The 26,113 square-foot facility will house four city departments and 46 employees.

The inspections and engineering departments have already moved into the annex, while zoning and community development will join them once furniture arrives.

Hanson said goal of the expansion was to alleviate overcrowding at City Hall, while providing a more citizen-friendly environment for those conducting business with the city.

"The intent of the building was to create, as best we could, one-stop shopping for the development community," he said. "The new City Hall Annex allows us to consolidate most of our development-related departments under one roof. This allows great ease for people who are pulling permits to go to one source for information about zoning inspections or permits, engineering questions."

The city is also in the process of renovating the old Harris Engineering building at the corner of Lee Street and Hill Avenue for use as a customer service center. The $385,000 project will provide a more accessible place for people to pay water and sewer bills, and afford a measure of privacy for those with service problems or complaints.

The building will have a drive-through window, and will be a much more friendly building for disabled and elderly residents.

"The new customer service center, we feel, is a big asset because many of our customers who come in monthly to pay their bills are elderly and have a very difficult time negotiating this wonderful old historic building," he said. "This will give them a ground-level building with decent parking and the use of a drive through window."

Hanson said the city was also working on a proposal to allow residents to pay all of their utility bills at the new customer service center, such as phone, cable, power and gas bills, while also handling all aspects of city utility management such as new sign-ups and transfers.

Both projects were paid for through SPLOST dollars, but Hanson was quick to note that the city was able to open and operate the buildings without a tax increase.

In City Hall proper, other departments will take advantage of the space created by the new buildings. Parks and Recreation already occupies the third-floor space previously help by engineering.

The city's municipal court will move into space on the second floor, and the human resources department will move to the basement to take over space from the zoning department. The finance department will use the former customer service space.

Mara Register, whose community development department will relocate to the annex as soon as furniture is purchased, said the changes would mean a noticeable boost in the efficiency of the affected departments.

"The biggest thing is that it certainly will make the functioning of the department more efficient, because all of the staff will be housed in one facility. The entire staff is exictied about relocating," she said. "I'm really excited about the public access part of it. If somebody needs to deal with more than one part of the department, we're all there together. It makes us more friendly for the community."

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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