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It's a Small World at a City Hall That Has Big Dreams

Nebraska municipal building is 10 x 10 and used to double as a pump house. Now officials hope it can be a ticket for fame, fortune.

November 23, 2003|Mark Thiessen | Associated Press Writer

MASKELL, Neb. — Maskell's city hall is so small, board members have to go outside to change their minds. Pah-dah-DUM.

It's so small, not even this tale of woe could fit inside.

Joking aside, at 10 feet by 10 feet -- about the size of a large walk-in closet -- Maskell likely has the nation's smallest city hall. It's the only public building that this tiny northeast Nebraska village can afford, and it's fallen into disrepair through years of neglect.

The four men and two women who make up the Maskell town government are trying to secure grants to finish a two-year project to refurbish the 70-or-so-year-old structure and get a little recognition in the process by promoting their claim to have the smallest city hall in the nation.

"I don't blame them; it's a good angle," said Betsy Bean, editor of the Acworth, Ga.-based Small Cities Publishing, which produces "best practices" publications for communities under 50,000 residents.

Neither her organization, nor apparently any other, tracks the size of city halls. Officials with the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Assn. said they don't keep those statistics.

Maskell's wee white stucco structure features a tin roof and light blue arch on the front with the words "City Hall" dotted by large red marbles. It was built as a Depression-era works project for this community about 30 miles west of Sioux City, Iowa, but no one knows the exact date it went up because the abstract is long gone.

It's always been city hall for the village of 67 residents in Dixon County, but early on, it doubled as a pump house.

"The reason it was put in was most of the wells during that drought time, they all went dry," village board member Jerry Nelson said. "They found water here, and they put the building up."

The basement pump, which is accessible by a trap door and ladder, went quiet in the 1950s, but village work continues upstairs.

A typical monthly board meeting attracts four board members, the village clerk and the board chairman, Wally Bensen. If it's too cold, members take turns hosting meetings at their homes instead of at the unheated building.

When meetings are held at city hall, chairs are set up around a tiny table.

"Usually Wally and I get the table because we have to do the paperwork," said Jean Nelson, Jerry's wife and the village clerk. "If we have visitors, they just kind of stand here."

If there's a hot-button issue on the agenda that attracts more than two or three people, there's no room. To accommodate an overflow crowd of 10 or more, "a couple of times, we've had to rent the church," she said.

Those rental fees eat into the village's annual budget of about $5,000, most of which is used to mow the city park. That leaves little money for badly needed repairs at city hall, including pulling the side walls back in after they'd bowed a bit, securing the foundation and installing a temperature-controlled climate system, estimated to cost about $10,000.

"The town being as small as it is, it has very little income and no way to make some," Jean Nelson said.

That's why village officials are trying to secure state or federal grants, and hope that their claim to the nation's smallest city hall might aid them in the hunt for government assistance.

The hall has already undergone extensive renovation over the past two years. The outside was repainted, the interior walls were replastered and painted, a new tin roof and emergency siren were installed, and the building was rewired.

The $3,000 cost for those projects was spread out over two years, and reduced somewhat by volunteer help and generously discounted bills from local craftsmen.

Of the work that remains, possibly the most important is installing a climate control system to maintain city records, which are stored in the dark and dank basement crowded by the old pump.

Varying temperature changes through the years have wilted records, which were written in pencil on paper that has since mildewed or crinkled.

"We can't read some of the old ordinances," Jean Nelson said. "You get into some of that paperwork, it's either so crisp that you turn a page it falls apart, or it's got mold or mildew on it."

She has begun keeping records at her home two blocks away.

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