New County Public Works Building on shaky ground
“Have you read the FEMA report?” was a question posed by former Owatonna Ag teacher and soils specialist, Brian Kosel, at a special meeting held by the Steele County Board of Commissioners March 7.
The County Board Room was packed and you could hear a steady hum of hushed conversations going on at several times during the meeting. When Kosel asked that question and then informed the entire room that the building site was unbuildable, you could have heard a pin drop.
The building site in which the county has purchased and designated for the new Public Works Complex has cost over $3 million to date. Public Works Director and County Engineer, Anita Benson was as shocked as everyone else in the building when Kosel’s comment came forth.
“This is the first I’ve heard anything like that,” Benson said. When asked what the designated amount was for the sand and gravel fill that is docketed to be hauled into the site, she commented that $300,000 was set aside for that.
“I told Commisioner (James) Brady the day before that I was going to stand up at the meeting and divulge this information,” Kosel said. “He told me that I could say whatever I wanted, but that it was a done deal.”
When Kosel asked if any of the commissioners had read the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report, they indicated that they had not. There was no questioning Kosel or asking him to further explain his findings.
Kosel is an expert in his field of agriculture, having farmed and taught Ag classes at Owatonna for 42 years. He has five degrees in Ag sciences and an M.A. in education and yet, there was no questioning Kosel or asking him to further explain his findings.
Commissioner Rick Gnemi has gone on the record in support of scrubbing the current building site and moving forward to examine the possibility of refurbishing another building. When asked for a response to Kosel’s comment and whether the site is buildable, he pointed to Benson and said, “ask them.”
As the commissioners met at a roundtable work session to review the plans for the proposed structure, commissioners were weary of the cost analysis proposal that was presented to them by Deb Brandwick of Oertel Architects and county project manager Scott Quiring. Many questions were asked about the feasibility of reducing the building size, changing its dimensions and determining if the building was adequate or excessive in respect to the needs of the employees.
It was brought up, that, to date, the county had paid out over $788 thousand for just the architectural plans alone. And still, there is no agreed upon building, with revision costs that could total as much as $150,000.
As for actual building costs, Quiring drew many questions when he announced that the building would cost between $130 and $140 per square foot. That is not counting the $3+ million that is already into the site with much more projected.
Gnemi led the charge with a pointed scenario and a valid question on cost. “Today we had the school district come speak to us at the Lions Club,” Gnemi said. “They are doing 150 thousand square feet. And it is $50 per square foot.” (Total cost of the school district project would be $7.5 million)
“So, I’m seeing a building like this at 40,000 square feet, bid at $100 should be $4 million. How close are we to $4 million on this. Has anyone given any kind of thought or projection for this building right here?
A number that should have been readily available sent Brandwick scrambling for a number while muttering something about an old estimate.
“Um, there is an old estimate,” Brandwick said, “and these (numbers) have not been verified, this is 2 years old. It was $7.6 million and that included the site work. That estimate is going to have to be updated, because it was a 2-year-old number and it was not including splitting the project into two phases.”
After that statement, Commissioner Greg Krueger quickly spoke forth to Brandwick. “Your best guess is what we’re looking for here so we can get our head around this whole project,” Krueger said pointedly. “before we invest all the extra money into the mechanical and the electrical and all that sort of stuff.
“Your best guess on a 40 thousand square foot building of this magnitude. Are we in the $4 million range, are we in the $5 million range, are we in the $10 million range?”
Quiring at that point threw out his cost per square foot figures and following a question from Gnemi asking why the big difference in cost between this building and the school district project, Quiring stated, “I would have to get into the minutia of what they are doing with that 150 square feet. I am going by my market experience.”
The unsettling news caused the commissioners to take a fresh look at the project and to question costs. Commissioner Jim Abbe had already looked at a similar building and advised other commissioners to do the same within the coming weeks before they locked in the approval of the proposed plan.
Brandwick stated that she could find similar buildings that they constructed in the same financial frame-work as to what Owatonna has to spend. Abbe stated that it was also prudent for the commissioners to also explore other options and buildings done by other architectural firms.
The Steele County Board’s next scheduled meeting will be tonight at 5 p.m. in the Administration building. At that point, commissioners will have researched the financial differences between the building cost estimates and will look at other facilities.
In a related story, Kosel met with Rep. John Petersburg, Minnesota House of Representatives, last Friday. Kosel called to attention concern about the commissioners having to go back and ask for more funding on the project.
“No,”said Petersburg. “That (more finances) will not be given and I assure you that I will be speaking to the County Commissioners concerning these matters.”