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Hubbard County talks of scrapping space plan, moving cheaply

The second floor of the Law Enforcement Center is a cavernous space, equivalent to two floors of the county's office building next door. County commissioners have worked for three years in various committees and with a consultant to determine which offices would best fit in the space. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Hubbard County has some prime office real estate but it's been caught in the midst of a chaotic round of "which department draws the short straw" to relocate there.

Almost 12,000 square feet of space is available above the five-year-old jail.

Three years ago the county formed a building committee that met for nearly two years to determine how best to use the existing office building and adjoining law enforcement center. The county's old jail also figured into the mix. It houses the probation offices.

A Twin Cities-based architectural firm was eventually retained and a formal study was commissioned.

Almost $17,000 later, commissioners did not like any of the options they heard from the space planners. The total costs were in the $8 million to $10 million range, which surprised everyone. The county didn't have that kind of money, board members reasoned, and it was foolish to borrow or bond for those kinds of expenditures in tough times.

The plan envisioned the courts and court administration moving above the jail. But the price tag, estimated at $2.4 million, still made commissioners choke, even without the rest of the plan being considered.

Then the district judges didn't like portions of the plan, so it sat unused.

Meanwhile the burgeoning Social Service Department kept outgrowing its third floor offices in the county building and had begun moving into vacant second floor space.

Court issues of security and lack of meeting space persisted.

The architects split into two different firms, each trying to woo county business. The initial firm and the break-off firm each formulated a space plan for the law enforcement building. At least one plan went only to Social Services Director Daryl Bessler, who turned his nose up at it.

It would have crammed his staff into even smaller office space above the jail and compromised the confidential nature of the services caseworkers provide, he argued.

That plan finally came to light Wednesday at a work session the county called to figure out how to best use the space. The building committee was disbanded a year ago. Commissioners seemed as astounded by the phantom plan as Bessler was to learn the competing firm had presented its own plan to a couple board members.

"The building committee spent time and did a good job," Bessler told the board Wednesday. "Now it appears there's an effort to throw that away."

Original building committee member Arnold Leshovsky appeared at the board meeting to defend the efforts.

An architect was desired to legitimize the process and assist with any statutory provisions that might arise in relocating the courts, Leshovsky said. Department heads and the courts were fully consulted throughout all aspects of the plan as to what space each office needed.

"We knew the courts were gonna be a problem," Leshovsky acknowledged. He said the committee came up with "the best of the options" considering public access and security concerns.

And at the time, he said, the committee was never presented with budget figures so it was working partly in the dark.

Former building committee member and county maintenance supervisor Lee Gwiazdon said he felt the committee worked hard to "meet a specific set of goals" assigned to them.

Court personnel didn't show up for the committee's last meeting, even when invited, Leshovsky recalled, so committee members assumed court personnel were on board with the plan.

"How are you gonna pay for it is always a big issue," commissioner Lyle Robinson said. He said there are "18 legislative bills pending that hold off state funding and we're on the hook to pay for them."

He worries the state could impose "relatively large tax increases" on property owners to balance a projected $5 billion shortfall for the next biennium.

"We need to get the notion out of our heads we need to do something," he said.

Robinson proposed a no-frills plan that would move the County Attorney, Environmental Services Office, Probation and the County Coordinator to the LEC. It could be done gradually, phasing Social Services into the entire second floor of the office building.

The space now occupied by Probation, in what is referred to as "the old jail," could be used to meet the courts' extra needs and move the Law Library to a more secure location, commissioners theorized.

Leshovsky on Thursday expressed his dissatisfaction with the proposal, saying the county could not "nickel and dime this thing" to save money.

Ductwork will be costly, he said, regardless of what goes above the jail. Other work could easily put the price tag at $1 million, he suggested.

Because it was a work session, the board took no action on the proposal, but seemed finally to agree it was something members could live with financially and something they could present to taxpayers without shame.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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