Elections office may bypass Big Lots site after all


Published: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.

Correction: Alachua County Commissioner Susan Baird is a Realtor with Bosshardt Realty Services. An earlier version of this article misreported where Baird is employed.

Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter has asked for more office space since the mid-2000s, and the Alachua County Commission decided Tuesday that she'll have to wait a while longer.

Carpenter was eyeing the site currently occupied by a Big Lots, at 2340 N. Main St., and adjacent Ashley Furniture space in the Northside Shopping Center, but commissioners felt the expense of leasing it was too high. Big Lots is moving 13 blocks west to the old Albertson's site.

The board voted 4-0 to request that county staff return in July with information on the process of hiring a real estate agency to represent its interests as it conducts a new search for a Supervisor of Elections site.

Commissioner Susan Baird recused herself due to a potential voting conflict since she is a Realtor with Bosshardt Realty Services, which manages the site that Big Lots is vacating.

The commission wants to consider spaces available for lease and purchase, as well as the possibility of building a facility.

Carpenter told the board its location in the Star Garage downtown was originally supposed to be a temporary, 15-month lease and said it wasn't a functional facility when her office moved there several years ago and still isn't.

“It will not function through another presidential election,” she said, mentioning its multi-story layout and lack of parking as problems.

Carpenter said she felt like they had made it to the altar and were about to put a ring on someone's finger only to pull back from taking action yet again. Early and absentee voting are much more popular now than in 2000, she said, and that requires more storage space.

Staff recommended the county lease the shopping center space over an 11-year period and pay the renovation costs over the course of that agreement.

The base rent for year one of this lease was projected at $334,892 with a total cost of about $1.3 million, which includes operating and renovation expenses and one-time costs. The total cost of the 11-year lease would be about $12.7 million.

Comparatively, the anticipated cost of building and operating a new facility was projected at about $17.5 million over an 11-year period.

Facilities Manager Charlie Jackson told the board the total annual cost of the Supervisor of Elections' three facilities — its Star Garage office, a warehouse it uses, and its space in the County Administration Building — is about $172,680.

Staff stated the county received six responses to the Invitation to Negotiate it issued in December, all of which met its criteria. It evaluated the sites and selected the Big Lots proposal without getting pricing estimates first and then began negotiations with Bosshardt.

Finance Director Todd Hutchison's office did not recommend buying the shopping center site. In a memorandum to other staff members, Hutchison wrote it may make some long-term financial sense to do so but there are too many risk factors.

One risk he mentioned was the uncertainty over whether Winn Dixie, which he referred to as the shopping center's anchor, would renew its lease when it expires in a few years.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said he understood Carpenter's need for a new location but didn't think this was the best long-term plan.

“There's no question that we need to do something and we need to do it as quickly as we can,” he said. “I just think that we do have to bear in mind the cost to the taxpayer, so we need to provide good elections and at the same time remember who's paying for this.”

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said this is the wrong deal for the right location. He is willing to take a better proposal for a slightly less ideal site.

Carpenter laid out her elections schedule from now through the 2016 presidential election, emphasizing the brief windows of opportunity during which her office can move because of the pre- and post-election work her staff must do for local, state and national elections.

“It seems like it's a really distant date with 2016, but we have to be settled in the first quarter of 2015 at the latest,” she said.

She told the commission she was concerned about starting another months-long relocation process, which will push her move-in date pretty close to her 2015 deadline, instead of moving forward with this plan, which would put her on track to move into the shopping center in December.

“This is a real issue. It cannot be kicked down the road again,” she said. “I understand what you say, and I totally agree that, whatever we do, we have to keep the citizens' pocketbook in mind. That's my pocketbook, too.”

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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