Saturday, September 25, 2010

Oconee County Commissioners Struggle With County Space Issues at Public Meeting

SPLOST Funds to the Rescue Again

What started out back in May as a plan by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to save about $20,000 to balance the current budget turned on Tuesday night into a discussion among the commissioners about spending $2 million to renovate the Government Annex building on Greensboro road on the south of Watkinsville.

Billed in the legal notice as a chance for the public to comment on the “Oconee County Government Annex Renovation Project,” the Tuesday night meeting instead featured a discussion among the commissioners of the merits of three renovation plans for the annex facility, and a discussion of alternatives.

The most expensive of the three plans presented ran to just less than $1.9 million.

That did not include replacement of the leaking roof on the Annex building, estimated to cost an additional $350,854 to $396,128, or a proposed brick veneer, estimated to cost $25,728, or a new entrance canopy, estimated to cost $41,648.

It also didn’t cover unestimated costs for moving the existing county offices out of the building on Jan. 3, 2011, or back in on July 1, 2011, or expenses for housing the offices in the interim.

For the approximately 40 citizens in attendance, listening in on the discussion among the commissioners was difficult, as no one was using microphones, the commissioners sat with their backs to the audience and often talked at the same time among themselves, and the person who was moderating did little.

At one point, Commissioner Margaret Hale told the audience not to worry about the expenses, since none of the discussions involved a proposed tax increase.

Instead, she said, the county was going to be dipping into unspent monies from the 2003 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which ended last year and was replaced by a new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Both taxes added one cent per dollar to purchases made at businesses in the county.

How to spend that unspent sales tax revenue, designated as for county facility expansion and renovation, has been a central question haunting the commissioners for nearly two years.

The county started collecting the tax back in 2004, without, it now seems, any firm plans for how the money was to be spent.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko told me on Thursday that the county has not spent $4,083,067.69 of the $4.6 million originally approved for facility expansion and renovation. He said he was not subtracting from the $4.6 million figure spending approved by the commissioners for the fiscal year that started on July 1.

Keeping up with what has and has not been spent is a challenge.

The BOC agreed on Feb. 2 to spend $170,000 from SPLOST funds to renovate the Government Annex to accommodate the current tenants of the building, which includes the Utility Department, the Public Works Department and the Fire Department.

On May 5, those plans were put on hold after Finance Director Benko proposed that the county vacate the Courthouse Annex, located across Main street in downtown Watkinsville from the courthouse, as a way to save money to balance the 2011 Fiscal Year budget.

The idea was that the county could move the Planning Department, Code Enforcement, and other offices from the Courthouse Annex to the Government Annex if the latter were renovated to accommodate the new as well as the current tenants.

The county leases the Courthouse Annex, and it has a lease only through the end of this calendar year.

Benko said in May that terminating the lease would save the county $41,675 in the current fiscal year. After a challenge by Commissioner Jim Luke, who said the savings would not be so great given moving and associated costs, the figure to be saved this year was reduced to $20,000.

The lease costs the county $6,942 per month, or $83,311 per year, according to Benko. In addition, the county pays what Benko calls “associated costs” for such things as utilities, insurance, pest control, and lawn maintenance, bringing the estimated annual cost to $105,000.

That money would be saved in future years if the county vacated the Courthouse Annex, the two-building complex also referred to as the Dolvin property.

The conversations inside the BOC about the Government Annex, the Courthouse Annex, and future county courthouse needs have been made even more hard to follow by conversations outside the BOC but instigated by it.

Back in December of 2008, at the initiation of BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, the county held an unpublicized meeting with a group of elected county officials to begin discussions about future courthouse facilities

The outcome of that meeting was a recommendation to the full BOC from county Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost on March 31 of 2009 that the county issue a request for proposals for "architectural consulting services for county judicial and governmental administrative facilities."

The consultant was to study current space and needs and recommend to the BOC how to go forward with plans for new courthouse facilities.

The four members of the BOC bulked, however, and sent the issue to the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning.

After deliberating for nearly a year, that group decided on March 9 of this year that the county needed to build a new judicial facility separate from the current courthouse but near the new jail on Experiment Station road on the north of Watkinsville.

The Land Use Committee has spent most of its meetings since then working on a PowerPoint presentation it wants to show to citizens to convince them that it has reached the right decision.

After emphasizing that a new judicial facility was not something that was going to happen in the near term, the BOC on Aug. 31 told the Land Use Committee to go ahead with its presentation.

That meeting is now scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 19 at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain road, where the discussion on Tuesday night about the Government Annex was held.

The Land Use Committee discussions have been vague about how its plans could be realized, but Finance Director Benko made specific reference to the unspent 2003 SPLOST funds back in September of 2009 when he met with committee members.

How much SPLOST money is available at any given point is difficult for anyone but Benko actually to know.

Although the county has not spent the $170,000 it set aside for renovation of Government Annex in February, it has approved spending from the $4.1 million in the SPLOST balance since the fiscal year began.

On July 6, it approved hiring Wayne Wilbanks to serve as project manager for the Government Annex renovations.

The amount to be paid to Wilbanks was not announced in the public meetings. Benko told me on Thursday that the county is paying him $100 per hour and covering his travel to and from his home outside the county at the rate of $0.50 per mile.

As of Thursday, Benko told me via an email message, the county had paid Wilbanks $21,376.25.

On Aug. 3, the BOC agreed to pay Precision Planning Inc. of Lawrenceville up to $74,500 for architectural services for the Government Annex renovation. As of Thursday, according to Benko, the county had paid PPI $6,183.50, but he said he is expecting another invoice shortly.

On Aug. 31, the BOC agreed to hire R.W. Allen of Augusta as the construction manager at risk for the renovation and to pay up to $2,990 for initial services. As of Thursday, Benko said, he had not yet paid any money to R.W. Allen.

At the meeting on Tuesday night, Chairman Melvin Davis introduced Wilbanks, who then introduced representatives of both PPI and R.W. Allen to the audience. Wilbanks stayed at the front of the room and led the discussion of three renovation plans offered by PPI. R.W. Allen submitted cost estimates for two of those.

I was not able to attend the meeting on Tuesday night. Sarah Bell video recorded it for me.

Wilbanks identified the first plan created as a “Schematic Workstation Plan.” Department heads would have offices on the exterior walls of the building. Much of the remaining space would be used for open cubicles. Total square footage was 20,160, or the size of the building as it is now.

R.W. Allen said that design would cost $1,436,408 to complete.

After getting staff feedback, Wilbanks said, PPI next proposed a “Schematic Office Plan.” This included individual offices and a total square footage of 23,660.

R.W. Allen estimated the cost of this design to be $1,885,505.

Wilbanks said PPI got more staff feedback and offered a third plan, called “Schematic Plan.” It does not specify the square footage.

R.W. Allen has not yet given a cost estimate for this plan.

At the meeting, Wilbanks said he would put the schematics for the three plans on the county web site, and they are available there now.

Both the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Enterprise covered the Tuesday meeting. In both cases, the papers focused on the reaction of the commissioners to the cost estimates.

Commissioner Luke has been opposed to the plan to move from the Courthouse Annex from the beginning, and he remained so on Tuesday. Commissioner John Daniell has been the biggest proponent of the renovation, and he reiterated that position on Tuesday.

He said that the county currently is using only about three-quarters of the 10,000 square feet it is leasing in the Courthouse Annex and that the proposed renovation plans, which are expected to meet space needs for the next 10 years, are a good investment.

The Oconee Welcome Center actually vacated some of the Courthouse Annex space this week, moving to newly rented space on Main street next to the courthouse.

The BOC agreed on Aug. 3 to a three-year lease of that space at $900 per month. The money will come from the county’s hotel tax revenues.

Commissioner Hale and Commissioner Chuck Horton expressed concern Tuesday with the cost estimates for the Government Annex renovations, which they said surprised them.

“We went from renovating the inside to the Taj Mahal,” Hale said. “I really think we went to the extreme. That wasn’t my intent.”

Alan Theriault, county administrative officer, told me on Thursday that he sent an email message to the commissioners on Sept. 15 informing them that the materials for Tuesday night’s meeting were available for review.

Luke suggested, given the cost, that the county should consider a new building, perhaps in front of the current building. Chairman Davis ended the meeting by asking Wilbanks to come back to the Commission after exploring that option.

Citizens who wanted to speak at the meeting had to shout out their questions, since Wilbanks focused his attention on the reactions of the commissioners, who were seated immediately in front of him.

Several citizens did speak, and the lack of space in the renovated facility for the Athens Technical College adult education program was a key concern.

Nancy Turnbill, director of that program, pointed out that the county web site lists the Adult Learning Center on its web directory, but it is not included in the renovation plans.

Commissioner Daniell said the county could find space somewhere else for the adult education program.

If the BOC goes forward with the proposals on the table for renovation of the Government Annex, it also is going to be shopping for short-term space for the Utility Department, the Public Works Department and the Fire Department.

And that $20,000 savings from vacating the Courthouse Annex is gone.