Health workers appreciated

Fort HealthCare honored several Jefferson County health leaders who have been out on the front lines of the OVID-19 pandemic. Presented with plaques of recognition and appreciation for their work and sacrifice were, from left, Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Donna Haugom, Jefferson County Health Department Director Gail Scott and Watertown Department of Public Health Assistant Director Abbigail Kuehn. Not pictured are other award recipients, Watertown Department of Public Health Director Carol Quest and Jefferson County Public Health Program Manager Elizabeth Chilsen.

Although there have been updates that have been ongoing since 1991, it’s time again for major renovations — to the tune of a possible $35 million — to the Jefferson County Courthouse.

The facility dates to original construction in 1961.

Acknowledging this need, the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, June 9 voted 27-2 with Mike Kelly absent, to continue taking steps toward initiating the project. Many other hurdles need to be cleared before the full project can begin. The dissenting supervisors were Greg David of Watertown and John Kannard of Helenville.

Explaining his vote, David told his colleagues the world, “is in a state of flux” and warned “there are big curves coming up.”

He said the county should remain flexible for the foreseeable future and not commit to such a major project until more is known about how office work in society will eventually be performed.

Kannard agreed with David, saying “In five years, you might design a totally different building.”

Supervisor Richard Jones is chairman of the finance committee and said his panel believes with interest rates as favorable as they are, now is the time to undertake the renovations.

Supervisor Curtis Backlund voted in favor of the project, saying if the county were to do just the mechanical work needed, “you rip into the walls. And by doing this all at once, it’s done and you don’t displace workers twice. We’ve looked at all the space requirements … It makes sense to be ‘one and done.’ And I don’t see costs going down anytime soon.”

Walt Christensen of the board said when he first saw the financial figures for the project, he was skeptical.

“I toured the buildings, and attended the buildings and grounds committee meetings, and I was relieved of my skepticism. The experts here have convinced me the scope is correct, and the need is there and I have to go with the (recommendations) of upper management, whom I trust.”

According to Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier, part of the initial efforts by the county toward the project will now be final selection processes of who will perform the work and gaining contract approval for these efforts. Wehmeier said these services may include construction management and design services, among other assistance.

“Upon these decisions being made, a more intense process for final design development would take place to develop building plans,” Wehmeier said.

Wehmeier said the estimated timeline at this point has final design and budgeting being in place in nine months, with bidding and contract approval occurring over the following two to three months. Construction phases would take place over the subsequent 24 to 28 months.

“So, if the county board provides approval in the coming months, work could potentially begin about a year from that approval. The estimated completion would be in 2024,” Wehmeier said, stressing that more approvals await before the project can begin. “It is anticipated that the additions being recommended would be done first to facilitate flex space for departments to locate to (other areas) while other space is being renovated.”

According to Wehmeier, the intent of the county, at this point, is to maintain an operational courthouse facility through the duration of the project.

Jefferson County Building and Grounds Committee Chairwoman Laura Payne said that, over the last several years, the county has continued to evaluate the condition of its facilities to ensure that its long-term operational needs are being addressed.

“This has included the courthouse, sheriff’s office, jail located at the south end of the courthouse complex, highway facilities and south campus operations primarily focused on health and human services operations,” she said, reading to the board an executive summary of the resolution generated by her committee and the the office of Corporation Counsel Blair Ward. “During the evaluation process, it was determined that the courthouse facility is most in need of renovation and upgrades.”

The Jefferson County Courthouse was built in various phases starting in 1961, with substantial additions in 1966 and 1991.

“Today, much of the courthouse is original construction with original equipment,” Payne said. “As a result, there has been an increasing failure rate related to mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Most of these systems have significantly exceeded their life expectancy and are either continually in need of repair, or are likely to need repairs in the near future. Further, the courthouse does not meet current building codes, provide for basic life/safety measures, or Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.”

In reviewing how to address the future needs of the courthouse facility, a determination was made to review courthouse operations in addition to mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

“This includes life, safety and security needs, Information Technology needs, general operational needs, and compliance with current codes and regulations, such as the State Department of Corrections for the jail, Supreme Court Rules for the court system, Americans with Disabilities Act and various other applicable building codes,” Payne said.

In 2019, the county’s building and grounds committee interviewed consultants to evaluate the operational needs of the courthouse, and Potter Lawson and Partners was selected as the design team and approved by the county board.

“During 2020, Potter Lawson’s review of the courthouse facility consisted of reviewing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, and advising of code deficiencies, security and technology needs and necessary upgrades to meet the future demands of courthouse operations. This process included input from county staff and elected officials,” Payne said.

In October of 2020, after presentations to the building and grounds committee, a report was presented to the county board. This report included a mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems analysis and a new space configuration to include three primary additions to the courthouse facility (see accompanying story).

The total project cost at that time was estimated at $33 million, with $17 million of that cost going to replace the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

Financing options were presented to the board and included discussion that interest was at historically low rates.

On Feb 19, at a joint meeting of the executive, finance, and building grounds committee it was determined it would be appropriate to continue to evaluate the courthouse facility renovation project, and also determined that additional design services were needed to finalize the scope of the project. This plan was approved by the county board on March 9.

After this county board action, Potter Lawson continued to review and further define the scope of the courthouse facility renovation project by reviewing space needs with staff, and conducting additional analysis of mechanical, plumbing and electrical plans to include updated cost estimates.

The results of these additional efforts were presented to the county board on May 11. This included an updated project cost estimate of approximately $35 million and that number stands today.

On June 2, the building and grounds committee recommended that the county proceed with the projects as developed by Potter Lawson and that was affirmed by the board on Tuesday night.

A portion of the resolution, itself, read, “The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors hereby approves the courthouse facility renovation project as presented, with funding for this project requiring additional action by the county board at a later date … . The county administrator is directed to start the next phase of design services, procure construction management services, procure owner’s representation services, and develop a more defined financial model for this project.”

A fiscal note attached to the resolution stated that, “Funds for the total project will be provided through current cash available and debt issued by the county over three years … At the time it becomes necessary to issue debt for this project, a three-quarters vote of the full board of supervisors will be required to authorize the debt issuance.”

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