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Jackson looks to future government space needs

haywoodJackson County is moving ahead with an effort to free up more space in its Health Department.

Last week, county commissioners OK’d $72,000 for architectural design, contract development and bid negotiation to remodel a 10,500-square-foot portion of the county’s Skyland Services Center.  

The building, known to some as the old Southern Lumber building, is currently home to the Board of Elections, drivers license office and the grounds maintenance, housekeeping and public works departments, but it still has 10,000 empty square feet. A preliminary estimate commissioners heard last year projected it would cost about $1.4 million to renovate the space.

Commissioners are considering moving Jackson County Cooperative Extension and the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District into the extra space at the Skyland Services Center, along with the Farm Service Agency and possibly the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Currently, Extension and the Conservation District share a building with the Health Department. 

“It’s almost like a chain reaction kind of thing,” said Commissioner Vicki Greene. “You move the offices out of the community services building (where the Health Department is) to the Skyland Services Center and determine which of two uses you want to use that building for. Either renovate it for a Health Department or use it for non-judicial services that are currently in the Justice Center.” 

For Jackson County, two space issues are at play. 

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First, the Health Department is running out of space, having seen a growth in the requirements it’s subject to and the programs it offers. The elevators aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, many of the building’s systems are at the end of their life cycle, clerical space is lacking and the building’s overall configuration just isn’t conducive to patient privacy. 

 “Right now someone walks up to the front desk and there is no privacy. There is no way to have a private, secure area and talk about what services they need,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “There are a lot of things that need to be corrected.” 

At the same time, the county is short on courtroom space. Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts has made it abundantly clear to commissioners that the Jackson County Justice Center has outgrown its capacity and that commissioners will need to provide more space for court functions as soon as possible. The county had a study done on space needs last year, with the company — Heery International, which also designs courthouses — suggesting Jackson is 36,000 square feet too small. Adding that much space would likely cost north of $10 million. Another option commissioners have considered is moving the administrative offices that currently take up about half of the building to another space, freeing up more square footage for court functions. 

If the county built a new Health Department building, it could move county administrative functions to the existing building. Of course, buying land and constructing a new facility — not to mention renovating the existing one — would prove quite costly. The county could also opt to keep the Health Department in its existing location but remodel the interior and expand into the space vacated by Cooperative Extension and the Soil and Water Conservation District. The estimated cost to remodel the existing building is $4.8 million. 

A long list of factors and considerations will play into the ultimate decision, and the county is in the process of forming a task force to weigh them out. Members, to come from the health and county commission boards — with the likely additions of County Manager Chuck Wooten and Health Department Director Paula Carden — will be appointed over the next month, and the group will likely take three or four months to reach a conclusion, Wooten said. 

In the meantime, commissioners will consider whether to move ahead with the Skyland Services Center renovation. The architecture and engineering work commissioners just approved will likely be done by the spring, Wooten said, and ready to bid at that point. The work itself should take about nine months. If commissioners give the project a green light — which paying for the architecture and engineering work does not obligate them to do — the process should wrap up in late 2016 or early 2017.

At that point, commissioners will have had plenty of time to consider the conclusion of the task force and decide on a course of action. 

“We’re not building a building (with this vote),” Wooten told commissioners last week. “We’re looking at the space that’s available and making sure it will meet the needs of this department.”



Questioning the contract

The vote to approve $72,000 for architecture, engineering and contract work surrounding a potential renovation in the Jackson County Skyland Services Center was unanimous, but a couple commissioners expressed concern over the price tag later in their meeting. 

“I just feel like sometimes as a board when something’s $70,000 it’s not a whole lot, and, well, it is a whole lot to me,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz. 

During the same meeting, commissioners had approved $35,000 for design work for potential construction at the Green Energy Park. Commissioner Charles Elders joined Dietz in questioning whether the expenditures were warranted. 

“It seems like we’re spending an awful lot of money to find out some things we already know,” Elders said. “I believe with our own staff we could meet this and save a lot of money and redo some of these buildings.”

That’s not exactly possible, County Manager Chuck Wooten told Elders, because state statutes require that counties hire licensed engineers and attorneys to do this kind of work before building. The cost of the contract is within the typical 6 to 7 percent of total project cost such work usually goes for.

Still, Elders maintained, “This is taxpayers’ money we’re spending, and I don’t feel all that easy to just hand it over without studying it a little further.”  

With the county revaluation going into effect for the upcoming fiscal year — the results will return an overall decrease in county property value, leading to a decrease in tax revenue if commissioners don’t hike the rate — the now-versus-later calculation on spending is definitely a factor. 

However, at the point Dietz brought the issue up, both votes — regarding the Skyland Services Center and Green Energy Park — had already been taken, with commissioner endorsing the contracts unanimously. 

Commissioners will likely invite Odell Thompson, architect on both of the projects, to an upcoming meeting to discuss what’s involved with his piece of the project. 

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