City, county start talks about future of government center

Let the discussions begin.

After an informational session Wednesday night to outline the potential future of the Mower County Government Center, the city and county are set to begin weighing the options for the space left empty by the move to the new jail and justice center.

No action was taken Wednesday as about 20 people — including officials with the city, county and Austin Police Department — outlined phase two and three of the government center remodel. The first phase is the jail and justice center project.

KKE Architects Inc. completed a study to determine if there was enough space in the government center to remodel the law enforcement center and use the remaining space to move the offices for Mower County Public Health and Human Services downtown.

“Is there enough space in this building? The answer is yes,” said Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson.

Commissioner Ray Tucker may have summed up the future discussions the best: “It’s going to be an interesting process,” he said.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he added.

There are three options for what could come next for health and human services once the county’s lease at Oak Park Mall expires in about four years. There are generally three options: restructure the lease to keep the offices at Oak Park Mall, move the offices to the Mower County Government Center or build a new energy efficient building on the Robbins block.

Remodeling the government center to house an expanded LEC and health and human services office isn’t a cut and dry decision.

“If we keep this building, which is probably what we’ll do, there’ll be some cost concerns,” Oscarson said.

While the government center’s main elevator is fine, the LEC elevator is not compliant, and it could be costly to meet standards. However, fixing that elevator is not required.

According to the report, much of the government center’s plumbing is in poor condition. Oscarson said they’d likely fix the plumbing in spots where the building is renovated. Piping in areas not significantly renovated will be fixed as needed.

Discussions won’t be limited to the county board and council, as the two groups will begin talking to staff to see what needs and concerns they have.

Tucker, the chairman of the county board, suggested the county’s building committee be in contact with council members to start discussions.

The study also gave price estimates on how much it would cost to build new offices for health and human services on the “Robbins block.”

The decision for the future of health and human services will largely be decided by the county. The city council and county board both need to approve an LEC remodel since it’s a joint project.

LEC

The county and city have both already designated $800,000 to remodel the LEC, which is enough to cover most of all of the $1.1 to $1.7 million estimated cost.

Currently, there isn’t enough room for detectives in the LEC. The men’s locker room is too small, and some officers could soon be sharing lockers. The LEC fitness area is too small, and other parts of the building will require some cosmetics updates, which Oscarson described as new carpeting, wallpaper and paint.

The dispatchers have also had issues with tight space, as some of the equipment has overheated and malfunctioned, Oscarson said.

The government center parking lot would be use entirely for LEC parking with about five public stalls. Now, sheriff’s deputies and police officers have to park on the street, because there aren’t enough spaces during shift changes.

If the county opts to move health and human services to the government center, that would leave little room if the LEC ever needed to expand in the future.

Health and human services

According to the report, it would cost $4.3 to $6.3 million dollars to remodel the government center to move in health and human services. A roughly 23,000 square foot building on the Robbins Block would cost $5.4 to $8 million, report states. Oscarson said it costs the county about $115,000 a year to have their offices at the mall.

Since health and human services are service based agencies, Oscarson said both offices are seeing more requests due to the down economy.

Now that they’re required to provide more services to more people, there’s an added stress.

“We need to make sure we have appropriate space so we can meet the needs of our clients,” Oscarson said.

If a remodel of the government center for the LEC and health and human services is in the future, the remodel would take about two years, Oscarson said.

Moving the offices to a downtown location would be beneficial because the employees often need to interact with other court staff and LEC staff. Oscarson said there’s some wasted staff time traveling between the mall and the downtown offices.

The county left a space on the Robbins block as an option for a new health and human services building, but it’s currently the most expensive option.

“It’d be more to build new, but it is an option,” Oscarson said. “Whether it’s a good option or not, that’s yet to be determined.”

While it’s the most expensive option, Oscarson noted that construction costs are currently favorable for such a project.

If health and human services do not move to the government center, the county will still have to maintain the empty space in the building with heating and cooling and other minor maintenance.

If the county decides to move health and human services to a downtown location, the next decision would be when to do it. There is some debate in the state about regionalizing some positions, especially in human services. However, Oscarson noted there’s been some debate on the issue for decades.

How a potential remodeling or building project for health and human services would be funded will be debated once a decision is made.