Destination: Downtown Austin

Published 11:03 am Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Mower County Board has taken the first steps toward moving Health and Human Services back downtown. — Eric Johnson/

The county board has set its sights on moving Health and Human Services offices back downtown.

The building committee recommended Tuesday that the board begin a $3.8 million remodeling project in the empty space in the Mower County Government Center, which was vacated when the Jail and Justice Center opened.

“We recommend that we start seriously looking into this project,” Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said.

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County Coordinator Craig Oscarson described Tuesday’s moves as “baby steps” to get the ball rolling. The board will discuss whether the multi-million dollar project is cost-effective compared to the cost of housing the offices at their current location in Oak Park Mall.

The potential remodel would cost about $3.8 million, according to a Knutson Construction assessment completed in September. The county board previously set aside $1 million for the project when it sold the old Health and Human Services building, according to Reinartz.

But construction figures are estimates.

“You never know until you bid what the real construction costs are,” Oscarson said.

For now, the board is in discussion mode. The finance committee will look into the county’s reserves and fund balances to see whether any money is available.

“I think we need to move forward on this and make something happen if it’s financially feasible,” Board Chairman Tim Gabrielson said.

The county could bond about $2.8 million.

Even though the space is available, there’s a great deal of work that needs to be done. Commissioner Ray Tucker said the building has to be renovated to fit needs. For example, much of the wiring and electronics needs to be redone, and all the old benches of the courtrooms will be removed.

“It’s not so much bricks and mortar as it is cosmetics,” Tucker said.

This may be a good time to remodel, according to the board, because construction costs and interest rates are currently low, Oscarson said.

The Health and Human Services offices will soon enter their eighth year at Oak Park Mall, a site that costs the county about $257,000 a year. The county has a 10 year lease at the mall. With the first half guaranteed, the county goes year-by-year in the second half of the lease.

Health and Human Services is in its third and final phase of a long discussed plan for the Government Center. The first was the Jail and Justice Center and the second is a remodel to the Law Enforcement Center.

After years of discussion, Tuesday marked the first action by the board in some time.

“We think that it would be prudent to get these departments back here in the building as long as we’ve got the space,” Reinartz said.

Knutson estimated the LEC remodel at $1.9 million, but $1.6 million of that is already set aside through the city and county.

Board members indicated they’d like to complete the entire government center remodel — the LEC remodel and the Health and Human Services remodels — at the same time because it’d be more cost-efficient.

Along with remodeling the vacant space, the county would likely buy some new furniture, since much of the furnishings at Health and Human Services date to the 1980s. Money will also be set aside for voice and data cabling.

The move could be a popular one for the county employees currently at the mall. Travel time from the mall to the county’s downtown offices has been a problem for social workers and other staff.

“It’d be much more functional for them to be in this building,” Reinartz said.

The county estimated Human Services alone loses about 30 hours a week in travel time — almost a full employee, according to Oscarson.

“Essentially, they’ve got a virtual employee because of that travel time,” Oscarson said.

The remodel still isn’t official. A board motion for the remodel could come as early as next week when the board is expected to have all its members. Commissioner Tony Bennett was absent Tuesday.

Gabrielson said many residents have come to him voicing displeasure that the county is paying rent when they have empty space in the Government Center.

“I expect that to come back forward next week,” Tucker said.

The project is expected to take about two years: About 10 months to a year for bid process, and about a year to remodel.

The board would also select an architect and engineering firm. The board will look to terminate an agreement with architectural firm DLR group, formerly KKE.

“We definitely need to look at this and find out what’s going to be best for the entire county,” Gabrielson said.