HHS Space Karls

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.

Lyn Jerde/Daily Register

Andy Ross had to scrunch his elbows a little to scratch his head and ponder how the accounting work space in Columbia County’s new Health and Human Services Building got so tight.

Ross, a county supervisor from Poynette, is a member of the County Board’s Ad Hoc Building Committee. As he joined the County Board’s Finance Committee for an impromptu tour of the accounting office Thursday, Ross (who is not on the Finance Committee) said he struggled to remember how the space turned out to be smaller than originally planned.

The exact difference in square footage between the original plans and the space wasn’t available Thursday, but the consequences were apparent.

HHS accounting workers told of too-narrow corridors, cramped cubicles and cupboards located in a place that blocks the view of the counter where members of the public come in to pay bills related to HHS services.

Accounting is the only HHS function that operates out of the new building at 111 E. Mullett St., on the southeast side of the Portage Canal. Most of the two-story structure has been given over to temporary courtrooms and court-related offices, while the courthouse at 400 DeWitt St. undergoes a major renovation scheduled to be completed at the end of May.

Most HHS functions remain, for the time being, at 2652 Murphy Road in Portage’s industrial park, but all HHS departments are expected to move into the building next summer, after the courts have moved back to the courthouse.

County Comptroller Lois Schepp brought county supervisors to the space Thursday to express concern not only about working conditions, but also about whether the space complies with federal accessibility standards.

There were three employees working in the office at the time of the tour, but several unoccupied cubicles.

Assistant Comptroller Cathy Karls, who oversees HHS accounting, said some of the cubicles are so small, workers can’t easily roll their chairs within them.

Karls also showed a cabinet that was placed over the head of a worker whose job entails watching the front desk – thus blocking the view of a customer awaiting service. Why, she asked, wasn’t that cabinet affixed to a wall where it wouldn’t block the view?

Supervisor Dan Drew of the town of Pacific, a Finance Committee member, observed, “There are obvious problems here.”

During the planning of the county’s $45.51 million building project, Project Manager Ron Locast of the Madison design firm Potter Lawson consulted extensively with workers in all county departments as to their space needs; although negotiation and compromise were involved, Ross said, the employees’ perspective on space needs was supposed to be a key factor in designing the new buildings.

Ross said he would need to consult his records of Ad Hoc Building Committee deliberations, to determine what changed between the time the accounting space was designed and when it was built smaller than originally planned.

He said, there needs to be some discussion as to what, if anything, can be done about it.

Before HHS staffers can move into the building, there will have to be some interior modifications, as the current interior was constructed largely with the courts’ needs in mind.

But County Board Chairman Vern Gove said he doesn’t yet know whether the accounting department can be given more space during those modifications.

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