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Columbia County building panel dissolves

July 21, 2018

In October, Columbia County Assistant Comptroller Cathy Karls demonstrates one of the space problems in the accounting offices in the new Health and Human Services building -- a cabinet fixture that blocks the view of the front desk.

Wednesday’s dissolution of the Columbia County Board’s Ad Hoc Building Committee doesn’t signify the end of biggest and most costly building project in county history.

As County Board members pointed out before voting unanimously to end the committee’s work – after almost four years, and 82 meetings – there are still questions to be answered, glitches to be resolved and debts to pay.

Columbia County borrowed $45.51 million to build the Administration Building at 112 E. Edgewater St. (completed in June 2017) and the new Health and Human Services Building at 111 E. Mullett St. (completed in July 2017, and recently occupied by HHS after a little less than a year as the county’s temporary courthouse). The new buildings, and the remodeling of the courthouse at 400 DeWitt St., comprised the lion’s share of the project, which also included a new Columbia County Highway Department Shop in Cambria and work at the Solid Waste Department in the town of Pacific, including the addition of a semi-automated recycling system.

But Supervisor Adam Field of Portage said his estimate of the project’s total cost is closer to $47.8 million.

When, Field asked, will the County Board get a report on the project’s final costs?

Ad Hoc Building Committee Chairman Kirk Konkel of Portage replied that bills are still coming in, and it could be weeks or months before the project’s actual cost is known. But Konkel said he stands by his earlier estimates that the project’s actual costs exceed the amount borrowed by 1 to 1.5 percent.

“That’s the best guess I know,” he said.

The committee’s final report, an 11-page document, included details of the bids that were awarded for the Admin, HHS and courthouse projects.

Supervisor Matt Rohrbeck of Portage noted, however, that the report’s total amount of reported expenditures came to only $32.375 million, and included nothing about the “small” projects for the Highway and Solid Waste departments.

By his calculations, Rohrbeck said, the final report fails to account for more than $13 million of the project’s actual costs.

Rohrbeck – who, on Aug. 18, will be the master of ceremonies for the building project’s dedication ceremonies – also presented a detailed report of conversations he’d had with county employees regarding the project’s successes and failures.

“Success” describes about 85 percent of the project, Rohrbeck said.

However, he said, the project’s shortfalls include office spaces that don’t meet departments’ needs, acoustics glitches in the newly-remodeled courthouse and office furniture that is either not yet delivered or not what the employees wanted.

The most prominent example is the Health and Human Services accounting space, which County Comptroller Lois Schepp has described as cramped and poorly laid out. In December, the architect, Ron Locast of the Madison design firm Potter Lawson, said the space meets federal standards for handicapped accessibility, and the main reason it’s cramped is because an additional workspace was added.

County officials have met with a Janesville architectural firm to seek ways to make that space more user-friendly for employees.

Rohrbeck cited other examples, including:

An office where the planned in-floor electrical outlets were not installed, forcing the use of power strips and extension cords.Another office where an employee injured a knee by banging into a filing cabinet that was too short.Acoustics problems in at least one renovated courtroom, including the ability of people in the gallery to hear confidential attorney conversations.

County Board Chairman Vern Gove said, and Rohrbeck agreed, that no building project is without problems.

“We are going to keep dealing with it,” Gove said.

Supervisor Andy Ross of Poynette is the chairman of the Information Services and Property Committee that is likely to have the main responsibility for dealing with building project issues from now on.

“Will it take time?” Yes. Will it take money?” Most likely,” Ross said.

Ross also was one of five members of the Ad Hoc Building Committee.

“It’s been – I don’t know how to put it – as challenging a project as I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Field asked Gove when the County Board will have a complete report on expenditures related to the building project, including how the overruns are addressed, and whether the contractors can be compelled to make right what county officials deem wrong.

“I would hate,” he said, “to see the county pay for something twice.”

Gove said he is pleased, overall, with the work of the Ad Hoc Building Committee, and with the support that all 28 County Board members have shown throughout the project’s process – including the issues yet to be resolved.

“I am ready to see this through,” he said, “because it is the right thing to do.”

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