County offices in dire need of new digs
Published: Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 9:23 p.m.
Although its $550 million backlog in road repairs has been Alachua County's most-talked-about infrastructure problem, the need for new digs for multiple offices has emerged as another front-burner issue.
The medical examiner, property appraiser, public defender and supervisor of elections all have said they need new facilities, among other infrastructure needs.
County Engineer Dave Cerlanek said achieving these infrastructure goals within five years appears doable, although plans for the medical examiner and other projects are still in the conceptual stage.
The county has been reviewing recommended relocation sites for the Supervisor of Elections Office that it received during its most recent search for properties, which the commission requested because commissioners said the leasing price for the No. 1 choice from a previous search was too expensive. The goal is to get Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter and her staff moved into a new space by spring 2015, and county staff will bring a recommendation to the commission on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Public Defender Stacy Scott got the go-ahead from the commission last week to move forward with plans to construct a 20,000-square-foot building for her office beside the criminal courthouse.
At a December retreat, the county's capital improvements team, which included Cerlanek, informed commissioners that the anticipated five-year cost for the county's overall infrastructure needs — including a 95,000-square-foot court support building, some projects for Alachua County Fire Rescue and around $12.9 million a year in pavement management expenses — totaled about $118.5 million.
But the estimate for total infrastructure costs is still somewhat up in the air, Cerlanek said, because the cost of relocating the Supervisor of Elections Office wasn't included in that figure.
Additionally, the new plan for the courts is to build only the Public Defender's Office for now instead of the full court support building, which also would house the State Attorney's Office and cost an estimated $26 million.
The commission appears to favor working through these projects on an individual basis instead of trying to do everything at once through a major initiative, such as an infrastructure sales tax initiative, Cerlanek said.
Commissioner Susan Baird said the roads backlog and the county's building needs have gotten to the point that they can't be dealt with all at once given the government's limited finances.
"Now we're really in a pickle," she said. "You've got to tackle these things piece-by-piece."
The public defender says she can't wait to move out of the 110-year-old building that houses her office, with its sagging plywood floors and nearly constant maintenance problems.
Walking through the building where she and around 45 other employees work, Scott pointed to the stairwell an employee fell down several years ago, which with its too-long stairs and too-steep incline, would never be built today.
Then there's the brown stain on the ceiling where sewage from the second-floor bathroom seeped in not long ago — a more recent example of the building's recurring maintenance troubles.
There's exposed wiring and piping throughout the building and the sagging section of flooring in her old office, which sits above a restaurant, that prompted engineers to look over the premises.
"This used to be my office a long time ago, and I was like, seriously? I might fall into the fryer," she said.
Engineers concluded back in 2007 that they couldn't guarantee the safety of the building as a whole for any extended period of time, she said. In terms of energy efficiency, the place "leaks like a sieve."
When clients who are already wary of the judicial system walk in here, it doesn't boost their confidence, she said, and the state of the building isn't great for employee morale, either.
But Scott said she's grateful to the commission for moving forward with plans to establish a new office in the near future and to her fellow courts officials for recognizing her need as the greatest.
Other members of the court system have agreed to pledge about $655,000 a year over the next decade from the Court Facilities Fund to pay for the new building, she said.
The county has been aware of the need for a new Public Defender's Office for several years. The original plan to establish a court support building tanked when the economy did in 2008, she said. While that plan hasn't been entirely discarded, the public defender's needs will be addressed first.
Like the public defender, Property Appraiser Ed Crapo has known his office needs a new home for years.
But there's only so much money to go around, so he just tried to remind the county to keep his office in mind.
"There's no real reason to try to make a scene about it," he said.
The Property Appraiser's Office covers around 15,000-plus square feet across three locations within the County Administration Building downtown, but it actually needs only about 13,000 square feet. The office is staffing three separate counters when it needs only one.
"What we're looking for is not additional square footage but better square footage," he said.
It appears his wait for a consolidated office might be drawing to a close because the county is looking to include room for his agency in the new Supervisor of Elections facility, which he said is good news.
The future home of the Medical Examiner's Office remains uncertain, but the county is considering its options.
"As soon as you walk into the building, it's crystal clear that a new facility is needed," said Bruce Goldberger, director of UF Health Forensic Medicine, which includes the Medical Examiner's Office under its umbrella.
The office, with its 10-person staff, investigates hundreds of deaths per year and needs a new facility designed appropriately for today's standards in this field, said Goldberger, whose team met with the county about this matter several months ago.
"The field of forensic science, including the practice of forensic pathology, is changing rapidly," he said.
The current building is inadequate. It's old, small and lacks the necessary facilities for modern-day death investigations, he said.
The size problem was evident when the Interstate 75 crashes happened. The office had to conduct autopsies and identify 11 bodies from the crash.
"But if you've ever stepped in our facility, it's very difficult to hold 11 bodies and to work 11 bodies comfortably," he said.
The Medical Examiner's Office needs a larger refrigeration system to hold bodies and a larger morgue area to conduct examinations.
Within the coming five to 10 years, it will be required that the facility become accredited, and the new office would be built with that in mind.
Goldberger emphasized that the service the Medical Examiner's Office provides is vital.
"It's a statutorily required service that's mandated by the state, and it's incumbent upon the county to provide the resources for that," he said. "Our time frame is as soon as possible."
Although the county is making headway on addressing some of its immediate building needs, routine maintenance remains a recurring responsibility.
New infrastructure requires bigger expenses up-front, but — as with road infrastructure — regular maintenance is necessary to minimize future costs, Cerlanek said. The government can't do these big projects and then forget about them.
"You try to reduce your out-of-pocket costs for the major renovations to the lowest possible level that you can. If you do allow them to continue to age without those preventative-type costs, then obviously the costs would go up," he said.
Baird compared the issue to the difference between homeowners who don't put any money into their homes after they buy them and homeowners who do invest in improvements and upkeep. Ten years later, people wonder why one home isn't worth much, while the other is worth much more.
The same goes for county buildings, she said. If regular maintenance needs aren't addressed, the county ends up creating a worse problem, and that's where it's come to with a lot of these buildings.
"Similar to roads, when things start to go, they go from bad to really worse," she said.
Baird said she doesn't think the county should rule out eventually pursuing an infrastructure sales tax to fund building needs, but she emphasized that the county has to make funding infrastructure in the long term a priority in its own budget.
Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said he has been impressed with how county staff has dealt with the government's building needs so far.
"It looks like, with the existing dollars, we'll be able to address most of them," he said. "From that perspective, it's encouraging."
But he agreed with Baird that the county should start trying to recognize it will have future, long-term infrastructure obligations and plan ahead.
"If we start funding these things early, you know, perhaps we can leave future county commissioners in a better position when that time comes," he said. "I would hope that that would perhaps be a priority of the commission."
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com.
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