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County board begins work on optional building plan

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

A new Stevens County building project could still be underway this year, and at least two commissioners stated Tuesday that they don't foresee any changes to the optional plan the board adopted last week.

The county board met with architects and a project manager to discuss details for the new project.

Last week, the commissioners voted unanimously to pursue a building and renovation project that does not include immediate construction of a 20-cell jail.

The project, known as Option 4, will include a substantial remodeling of the 53-year-old courthouse and construction of a new law enforcement center. The jail was the cause of considerable controversy in the community, especially in the last six months.

Option 4 is estimated to cost $11.5 million, and the board stated that would be the cap, although no formal action was taken on costs.

Earlier this spring, Klein McCarthy Architects and Contegrity Group prepared rough drawings and estimates on Option 4 plans but has not yet started on specific designs or cost estimates.

Scott Fettig, of KMA, and project manager Larry Filippi, of Contegrity Group, told the board that first phase work could begin in September and that the shell of the law enforcement center could be enclosed and heated to allow for winter-time work. The courthouse -- with the exception of district court offices and courtrooms -- could be vacated in December and that asbestos abatement could begin in January 2010.

County offices would be relocated to another location while construction is in progress. County Coordinator Jim Thoreen said the county is exploring possible locations for the county's temporary offices.

Fettig said $11.5 million would be considered the "high end" of the project and efforts would be made to lower the total costs as the planning process continued.

Commissioners Ron Staples and Herb Kloos said they would like to see the final costs lower than that if possible.

KMA architect Mark Schneider said space allocations in the refurbished courthouse for county departments already had been pared to the minimum in the original plan after three meetings with department heads. Revisiting that aspect in the new project would require additional planning with not much space or cost savings.

"My gut feeling is it wouldn't reduce (square footage) at all," Schneider said.

Commissioner Paul Watzke said that the board voted on Option 4 and it should stick to that program. He suggested that a sally port and holding rooms be shifted to allow the sally port entry to be located in the courthouse's back parking lot rather than along East 5th Street.

Commissioner Don Munsterman also said that he wants to stick with the Option 4 plan but make adjustments to the LEC, holding cells and sally port and not continue to focus on paring down courthouse renovations.

"I feel very comfortable with the rest of it," Munsterman said.

John Stephens, a member of the Stevens County Taxpayers Committee, asked architects if it wouldn't be less expensive to move ahead without making the courthouse "jail-ready." Various building materials and procedures would be needed to ensure that the building met security codes if a jail were added in the future.

Fettig said it would lower costs now, but that it would be much more costly to make the building "jail-ready" if cells were added in the future.

Commissioner Larry Sayre halted discussions on possibly changing Option 4, saying that the taxpayers committee members and other members of the public were welcome to attend open board meetings but "from this point on, the taxpayers committee is not part of the discussions" at board meetings and that further work was up to the board.

Earlier in the meeting, Staples again raised his idea of adding to the front of the courthouse -- since the county is seeking to vacate a block of Colorado Avenue -- to save costs associated with excavating the back area of the courthouse for construction of the LEC.

Fettig said that "certainly is a reasonable idea" but that it would require more design work.

The commissioners did receive some good news from Schneider, who said that the geothermal system planned for the site would not require wells in the back area of the site, which could cut down on costs.

"We hope that that would save quite a few dollars," he said.

Bill Klyve, of Otter Tail Power, also stated that, based on other geothermal projects and testing, the county probably wouldn't need to bore additional wells or add to its geothermal system to support future expansions, such as a jail.

The board will meet in a work session with KMA and Contegrity at 9 a.m. on June 30 to review revised floor plans. Filippi said he also would send a letter to bidders updating them on what the board is doing.

Bids for the project which included a jail were received but returned unopened when the board voted to pursue Option 4.

Filippi said the bidding market is good. The original project included 33 separate bid packages, and that Contegrity received about 190 bids. He also said that that rates on other projects for heat and shelter for winter construction were coming in 5 percent to 6 percent under cost.