Commission sends building plans to voters

Ward County voters will be asked in a special January election to approve borrowing for buildings and roads that totals $77 million.

The Ward County Commission voted Tuesday to approve that level of spending, which would require going back to the voters to request authorization for another $37.7 million in spending beyond the $39.3 million of bonding authority approved by voters in November 2012.

Voters had agreed to a half cent sales tax for up to 10 years to pay off the borrowing. County auditor Devra Smestad told the commission that the sales tax is coming in about $33,000 a month ahead of projections and is on track to raise $80 million in 10 years. However, the tax expires once adequate funds are raised. The county has allocated $10 million for highway repairs and the remainder for building projects, which are turning out to be much more costly than anticipated.

Architect Don Davison of JLG and representatives of the county’s consultant, Adolfson & Peterson, attended Tuesday’s meeting with updated figures on building costs.

The county office building is expected to cost $19.2 million. The jail expansion and renovation that the commission now is pursuing would cost $40 million. Renovating a juvenile detention center would add $2.5 million. Courthouse renovation comes to $4.7 million. In addition, demolishing the library to construct a parking lot, plus bonding expenses, adds $719,473.

The county’s original bonding was to cover only construction costs. Davison pointed out that there are a number of additional “soft” costs, such as design fees, equipment and furnishings, site work and construction fees. For the office building alone, that added more than $2.6 million to the cost.

The county also originally expected to spend $10 million on jail expansion. That plan called for 42 new cells and no remodeling of the existing jail. Now the commission is looking at $40 million expansion and remodeling project that would involve building a facility with 100 cells, of which most would hold two inmates. The size of the project has increased from about 30,000 square feet to 55,220 square feet.

If the new bond issue fails in January, commissioners were concerned that there would not be enough money in the original bond issue to complete the projects as originally proposed because “soft” costs weren’t included. The $10 million jail project would have to be scaled back to account for the various other costs.

The sheriff’s office reported the jail is currently overcrowded with a Tuesday inmate count of 137 people. Commissioner Alan Walter said that the count should be closer to 167 inmates, but because there’s no jail space, offenders are being allowed to post bond, even though they are high risk of not appearing in court. Warrants then are issued for the no-shows, and law officers end up with more work in trying to locate the people.

“It isn’t a question of preferring. It’s a question of need,” Walter said of scaling up the jail plans.

The commission also considered a smaller expansion of 50 cells, which is estimated to cost $27 million, but did not feel it would meet the needs.

The new jail plan moves the sheriff’s office into the expanded portion. Administrative offices and social services would move into the new office buidling. The existing courthouse would largely continue to serve the courts and related offices, such as state’s attorney.

“This building is county property, not the court’s property, and turning over this building to them seriously limits us ever being able to expand any of our functions into this building,” Commissioner John Fjeldahl said. “It’s very important that we reserve some of that space for future expansion within the county.”

To keep the projects moving forward, the county plans to have the architect continue design work. That means costs will be incurred toward a project that voters might reject, but commissioners didn’t want to delay a spring construction start on the jail if the bond issue passes. The consultants also reported that the increase in cost estimates can be expected to rise at 6 percent a year for each year of delay.