County debates $10 million renovation
Hubbard County government's space needs were solved Wednesday. But the price tag will be high if the Board of Commissioners decides to proceed.
The $10 million project would generally entail moving the district courts and court administration to the empty second floor of the Law Enforcement building, moving Hubbard County Social Services into the old court space, moving the Veteran's Service office into the county office building and moving the various tax, recording and assessing offices around to create separate "governmental services" and "judicial services" centers.
The old jail would be torn down to make room for a new two-story building that would accommodate the county attorney and probation offices. The plan is proposed in five phases over a nearly three-year period.
In unveiling the plan to commissioners during a two-hour presentation, St. Louis Park architect Bruce Schwartzman suggested the time was ripe to build.
The county's only current indebtedness is the jail, he said, and "the construction market is extremely competitive right now."
He said it was possible bids for the project could come in lower than the projected costs. And interest rates for bonds are relatively low, but won't stay that way long, he suggested.
Commissioners were deeply divided on the advisability of proceeding. It is the jail's cost and high vacancy rate that has brought them stinging criticism from their constituents.
"Don't let our passions for this project overcome our common sense," suggested commissioner Don Carlson. "Is this the time to do it? I urge caution."
A building committee has spent nearly two years studying the county's space needs and retained the services of the architectural firm to help members decide how to allocate the present space and plan for the future.
Many county offices are overcrowded and lack space for filing, conference rooms and public business. The judicial wing lacks proper security, they learned.
"All our work accomplished what we were looking for," said commissioner Cal Johannsen, a building committee member. "Nothing says we have to start on this tomorrow. We have a plan when we want to do something. It's important for the board to have a little time to digest this."
"It will have a very reasonable tax impact increase," said Myron Knutson of Public Financial Management, Inc., of Fargo. He presented graphs indicating the project would cost a homeowner with a residence valued at $100,000 $16 per year in added taxes; $13 per year if the bonding is "wrapped around" the law enforcement center bonds. But attaching it to the jail bond would also lengthen the tax burden by more than $1 million, he acknowledged.
Board chair Lyle Robinson repeatedly questioned the tax impact figures and suggested they were incorrect, based on where property valuations switch into higher percentages of taxation. He asked Knutson to refigure them.
"The question the public is going to ask us is how would $16 a year be better for me?" Robinson asked. "The general public is not going to feel like they're getting anything."
Committee member Arnold Leshovski suggested the public almost never gets a direct benefit when government spends public monies, but the intangible benefits of "personal satisfaction" and "getting the service they deserve" are the rewards.
"How is it going to make government better for my dollar?" Robinson questioned Leshovski. "If we can't defend what we're doing now, how are we going to defend more?"
"If it was a yes or no vote among our constituency it would fail," Carlson said. "I'm for the plan. Just not now."
Commissioner Dick Devine has supported the county's building of the law enforcement center. Although county officials still dispute the finished costs, which hover in the $10 million range, Devine maintains it was money well spent.
"The day will come when Hubbard County will be extremely glad they have that place and at the price we built it," Devine said. "I do think timing is everything. I think it (the new plan) deserves consideration if you can build it at the right price."
"You had a hell of a lot of empty space above that law enforcement center and this plan takes care of that," said building committee member Tom Rogge. "You would be heating and cooling it for a purpose."
And Leshovski said the lack of adequate court security could force the issue.
"If there is a problem in our courts and somebody gets hurt there is going to be a liability," he warned. Moving the courts to a more secure location is necessary, he said.
David Collins, Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Director, suggested there could be federal stimulus bond funds to cushion the financial impact to taxpayers. He urged the commissioners to apply for Recovery Zone economic development bonds through the state.
Hubbard County currently is not allocated any Recovery Zone funding, but Collins encouraged the board to get into line if other counties that have been allocated funds cannot use theirs and surrender them back to the state.
"If you get all that for $16 that's a pretty good deal," said county coordinator Jack Paul of the costs. "It's peanuts."
"There's lots of people in the county struggling," replied Johannsen. "That $16 is money to them."
The board took the proposal under advisement and took no action on it.
They all left the meeting certain that, like the jail, they would hear from their constituents.