The Columbia County building project budget is a moving target, and county officials almost certainly will miss the bull’s-eye.
County officials already have approved using other sources to pay for parts of the project that weren’t originally contemplated when the County Board voted, in November 2014, to borrow $45.51 million for the largest building project in county history.
There are other unexpected expenses that are certain to consume a large chunk, if not all, of the money set aside for contingencies.
Even the chairman of the County Board’s Ad Hoc Building Committee, Supervisor Kirk Konkel of Portage, concedes that exceeding the budget is inevitable. However, he predicted the overage would end up being less than 1 percent of the project’s budgeted cost — or in the neighborhood of $450,000.
However, Konkel said at the committee’s Nov. 30 meeting, it is likely to cost the county more in the long run if it doesn’t bite the bullet now, and undertake some unexpected but necessary expenditures.
“I think we have to go with what’s best for the county in the long run, even if we go over a little bit,” he said.
Reasons for overruns
According to a report from the county’s accounting office, the project was $464,660 over budget as of Nov. 1.
In the cases of overages, the options are to cut some aspects of the project — most likely in “soft costs” such as furniture — dip into money set aside for contingencies or find other sources of money.
The project’s main components, accounting for more than $42 million of the budget, are the construction of new Administration and Health and Human Services buildings on opposite sides of the Portage Canal, and remodeling the 55-year-old Columbia County Courthouse, 400 DeWitt St., for court-related use only, including adding a sally port.
Principal examples of unexpected costs, and how they’ve been handled include the following:
- The County Board’s Finance Committee approved, in April, a proposal to take $481,650 from a building maintenance account to cover the cost of new climate-control equipment for the remodeled courthouse, to replace equipment near the end of its useful life. Several people, including Finance Committee Member Dan Drew of the town of Pacific, asked why the equipment replacement wasn’t included in the original project plans and budget.
- In their first meeting in the new Administration Building, 112 E. Edgewater St., the County Board voted to transfer $292,000 from the county’s general fund to cover the cost of new digital videoconferencing equipment for all three courtrooms in the remodeled courthouse, to replace the existing equipment that is partly analog and partly early-generation digital. According to Management Information Services Director John Hartman, the choice was to either acquire new equipment and install it during the renovation, or pay to store and reinstall the unreliable existing equipment.
- There has been no firm decision, yet, on a proposal from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office to build a security station at the courthouse’s main entrance, with a counter and security monitors capable of viewing all parts of the building. That cost is estimated to run $12,000 for the structure and another $3,000 for the monitors. The Ad Hoc Building Committee has, however, approved installing the wiring for the monitors.
- A new matter that came up at the Nov. 30 meeting of the building panel: The Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program has offered Columbia County free electronic equipment to allow visitors to access court-related information, including the day’s court calendar, on the first floor of the courthouse. The county’s responsibility would be to build the semi-recessed structure in the hallway to house the equipment and provide the wiring. A cost has not been determined.
- The ongoing courthouse renovation process has revealed that some original ductwork needs cleaning before the new climate-control mechanisms are activated, to ensure efficient operation. The cost to clean the ductwork, which was not part of the original budget, comes to $15,890, and is likely to be paid via the contingency fund.
The committee denied a request from the county’s judges to install an opaque louvered fence, with sliding gate, in the parking area that will be set aside for judges and district attorney’s office employees. The cost, about $130,000, was more than twice the $53,000 budgeted for an open-work galvanized steel fence. The fence plan was altered, however, to change the top of the fence to make it harder to go over; that cost is unknown, but it’s estimated that some of it would be offset by forgoing the brick pillars that were originally part of the fence plan.
Ad Hoc Building Committee Member Mike Weyh of the town of Lewiston said nearly all remodeling projects come with sometimes-costly surprises.
“With this being a remodel project,” he said, “we don’t know when another issue like this might come up.”
Konkel said county officials have learned, from previous experience, that cutting corners on a building project can result in costly corrections later. For example, he said, the county borrowed $18.82 million in 2004 for work on the jail, a new highway shop in Wyocena and work on the Columbia Health Care Center, and compromised on some infrastructure work when the money ran short — only to pay more later when the problems had to be corrected.
“We’ve had experience when we’ve tried to cut corners at the end, and it cost us more than it would have if we did it right the first time,” Konkel said.
That may be so, said Committee Member Andy Ross of Poynette. But as a member of the Ad Hoc Building Committee, he said, he wants to know the financial impact of proposed changes in the project, and the likely consequences of not making the changes, before he decides to approve an additional expenditure.
“Are there health issues? Are there safety issues? Are there high-cost issues?” he asked.
Committee Member Teresa Sumnicht of Columbus said of proposed extra expenditures, “It’s not that we don’t want to do it, but we have to question.”
Steve Klaven, senior project manager for the Madison-based construction firm J.H. Findorff and Sons, said there may be more “tweaks” as the courthouse renovation progresses, but he doesn’t anticipate any major changes.
No more additions
Konkel has cautioned county employees not to ask for any additional features for the courthouse renovation.
The final cost figures are a long way away, because expenses related to the Admin and HHS buildings have not yet been fully closed out — including renovation of the HHS building to accommodate a temporary location for court offices, and the costs of moving the courts back to the courthouse, and the HHS staff from the existing quarters at 2652 Murphy Road to the new building at 111 E. Mullett St. late this spring.
Nonetheless, Konkel said, there will be times when it will make sense to go over budget a little bit in order to save costs in the long run.
“We’re only going to do this once,” he said, referring to the building project. “I don’t think anybody in this room is going to be around when we do another building project of this magnitude.”