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County's building experts discuss current project, check options

Project manager Larry Filippi (left), of Contegrity Group, and Scott Fettig, of Klein McCarthy Architects, discuss their work on Stevens County's plan to renovate its courthouse and build a jail and law enforcement center during a review panel meeting Monday night.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The architect and project manager for Stevens County's building project are expected to have design and cost estimates for two alternate plans by the end of April.

The Stevens County Board of Commissioners met with Scott Fettig, of Klein McCarthy Architects, and Larry Filippi, of Contegrity Group, in a work session Monday at the courthouse.

Fettig and Filippi also met with the Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee on Monday night to discuss their work and the two new options.

The county is in the final stages of planning on a $15 million project that would include a renovation of the courthouse and construction of a new law enforcement center and jail.

The board last month delayed bond sales for the jail portion of the project for 90 days and formed a committee to review the project.

The county board last week passed a resolution asking KMA and Contegrity to develop plans for a project that didn't include the jail, and a second plan that excluded the jail and law enforcement center.

On Monday, neither Fettig nor Filippi said they could give the board accurate cost estimates without first refiguring the project requirements.

Fettig said the project without the jail likely could be kept under $10 million, and that the option without the jail and LEC could cost less than that.

However, the $15 million plan also calls for the Human Services department to be moved back into the courthouse, and for Stevens Traverse Grant Public Health to move from its Pacific Avenue location to the current Human Services building on Highway 28 and the sale of the Pacific Avenue building. Neither of the two new options account for those two departments, and its likely, County Coordinator Jim Thoreen said, that both departments will need building expansions soon.

Many of the same questions arose during the commissioner's work session and the meeting with the advisory committee. Primarily, why subtracting the jail from the project wouldn't reduce the project costs more.

Both Fettig and Filippi said they hesitated to estimate the costs of the two new options without first developing more precise designs.

At the meeting with the advisory panel, Fettig said his estimates were "ballpark" and that its probable the savings would be more substantial after developing more detailed plans of the options.

Their rough estimations of the cost savings came to about $3.5 million to $3.6 million. That causes confusion when considering that the county wants to sell about $9.8 million in jail bonds to help finance the entire project.

Fettig and Filippi both stated that the cost savings wouldn't equal the projected bond total since the project was never looked at in pieces; the courthouse renovation and the construction of an LEC and jail are tightly integrated and that a lot of construction for one aspect of the project is tied to the others. Those parts of the entire project don't go away when a jail or LEC are subtracted. Also, the jail bond money can be used for other shared portions of the entire project connected to jail construction, and that the $9.8 million isn't solely paying for the jail portion alone.

Filippi also cautioned that breaking out pieces from the original design would cost the county money in other ways.

Because additional construction at the courthouse site may be needed, there may not be enough wells for the geothermal system and that construction of a jail in the future would require the installation of a hybrid system, Filippi said. Other construction features would be needed, such as reinforced security walls in some areas, to make it possible to add a jail in the future.

Fettig agreed.

"There are different pieces to it than simply saying, 'Take the jail off,' " Fettig said.

Commissioners and advisory committee members questioned why the costs for the renovation increased from an early 2008 estimate to what is now proposed.

Fettig noted that county departments submitted their space requirements after the original estimate and that he realized that more space in the current courthouse would need to be renovated to accommodate the added needs.

And the renovation will be as close to building new as it can get. The current cost estimate for asbestos abatement is about $321,000, and the building would be stripped to the steel supports and the interior rebuilt. Filippi also stated that the building would be expanded about 10 feet toward Colorado Avenue, and that a new entry, main lobby and other construction is needed that aren't included in the remodeling.

STG Public Health and county Human Services both need an additional 1,500 square feet of space to meet current and future needs. The Public Health building is about 4,300 square feet, according to county Facilities Coordinator Dave Schmidt. Moving to the 5,700-square foot Human Services building would meet those needs. The current building plan that moves Human Services back to the courthouse calls for an increase of square footage from its 5,700 square feet to 6,000 square feet, and Human Services would have access to shared spaces, such as conference rooms and break areas, to make up the difference, Fettig said.

At the advisory committee meeting, the panelists exchanged views on the project.

Jerry Lesmeister asked if Human Services, rather than expanding, could operate in two shifts. He suggested a "bare bones" project and then waiting to see what happens with the economy and possibly building on a different site in the future.

Commissioner Paul Watzke said that the board years ago reached a consensus that the courthouse and jail were problems the county had to address and that now is the time to do that.

"The problem isn't going away," he said, adding that residents' taxes haven't gone to bonded indebtedness in 31 years, which is when the current courthouse, built in 1956, was paid off.

"When are you going to invest in the county's facilities?" he said.

But committee members Lu Rohloff and Jack Lampert said residents can't handle more taxes.

"When is it enough?" Rohloff said.

Jeanne Ennen said that most of the people she has spoken with have no objection to upgrading the courthouse, but that the jail portion is the sticking point.

"People don't have a problem with the courthouse remodel," she said.

Committee member Neal Hofland said he believes with the economy in poor shape that school districts will be seeking levy increases, which he said would be a greater benefit to the community.

"I'd rather pay taxes for education than a jail," he said.

Regarding the bidding climate, Filippi said earlier Monday that the market now was excellent for those seeking competition.

Based on three projects -- a Mille Lacs County building and bidding for a public works building and a jail in Douglas County -- Filippi said bids were coming in about 15 percent to 20 percent under project estimates.

The total bids were increasing, as well. For the Douglas County bid packages, the county received 184 bids. When Renville County bid its jail project a few years ago, about 90 bids came in.

"There's definitely competition out there," Filippi said.

The favorable bids right now are due to contractors cutting margins, he said, and that he was comfortable predicting that competition would likely remain high for a month to three months, but that he couldn't say where it would be a year from now.

"It will be a good bid market until some type of inflation catches up, be it fuel or material," Filippi said.