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City to spend over $107K on cleanup of burned out church
Council member protests use of City funds
columbia fire cleanup
The City of Turlock is spending $107,575 to cleanup and level the site of the former EQUIP Church that burned down in August 2015. - photo by CANDY PADILLA/The Journal

The demolition and cleanup of the former site of EQUIP Church on Columbia Street is costing the City of Turlock almost $10,000 more than planned— an expense that Council member Amy Bublak voted against at the Feb. 27 Council meeting.

On Aug. 28, 2015, a fire destroyed the church building at 323 Columbia St., leaving only a set of concrete steps and a sunken pit of scorched debris — an eyesore and safety hazard for the neighborhood. Two and half years later, the site of the fire remained the same, with the City receiving dozens of calls to fire and police regarding the property, prompting the City Council to take action.

In December 2017, the City Council voted 4-0 (with Bublak absent) to fund the demolition and leveling of the property at a cost of $97,800.

“It’s a long time coming…since it is in my district, I am so happy that we’re finally going to get to this point and clean it up because it has been an eyesore and liability for us for almost three years now,” said Council member Gil Esquer at the Dec. 12, 2017 meeting.

At the February meeting, the Council was advised that the contractor discovered tile installed on the basement floor of the building that contained asbestos. Because asbestos is a hazardous material, it must be cleaned and scrubbed using a chemical solvent and then disposed of property. This hazardous material removal was estimated to cost an additional $9,775, bringing the total cost of the demolition to $107,575.

The City of Turlock decided to foot the bill for the cleanup, as the legal owners of the property have failed to respond to a nuisance abatement order.

EQUIP Church was renting the building, and are not the property owners.  The City did a title search for the owners and sent a notice to them that they were responsible for the cleanup of the property as it was a safety hazard, according to City Attorney Phaedra Norton.

The City will be placing a lien on the property for the amount of cleanup, which includes the hazardous waste demolition and the infill of the site with clean soil before leveling.

Bublak said she was concerned that the City is paying for the cleanup before the lien is in place, allowing for the possibility of the legal owner selling the property and not paying the City back for the expenses incurred.

Norton said that in order to move forward with the lien process, all the expenses must be assessed, which included the Council’s February action to fund the removal of the asbestos.

“My concern is that all these expenditures will be thrown away without a commitment,” said Bublak. “I’m worried about the taxpayers’ money,” she continued.

Council member Bill DeHart called the situation the City is in as between a rock and a hard place.

“We have a fairly serious legal liability and exposure for the damaged property on the corner, which subjects us potentially…to somebody getting in there, getting messed and the City all of a sudden is sued. I think whatever the cost is in this particular case is relatively inexpensive insurance policy to ensure that as we progress we basically demonstrated in good faith to get it cleaned up and to eliminate any potential exposure to injury or damage or loss of life and I think that’s infinitely greater risk to take rather than if we lose property for not filing the lien itself,” said DeHart.

The Council voted 4-1, with Bublak opposing, the approve the additional cost of the project for removal of the asbestos.