Supervisors question vote on communications building, look for other avenues to bond

By David Hotle, The JOURNAL


The much discussed communications building bond referendum will not be on the ballot in November as Washington County Supervisors plan to skirt a public vote by declaring the bulding location as a rural urban renewal area.

During the regular meeting Tuesday morning, supervisor Jack Seward Jr. discussed a plan to declare the area that would house the building a rural urban renewal area. He explained this would allow the county to bond for the building without voter approval. He said if the people want a vote on the issue, they can petition for a counter vote. To file for an election would take 10 percent of the turnout of the last gubernatorial or presidential election, or approximately 1,100 signatures. Auditor Dan Widmer was unsure how much a special election would cost.

?We had conversation with Bob Jostin, the bond attorney, and Bob suggested an alternative to the resolution we had set for consideration last week to fund the building portion of the radio communications project,? Stewart said. ?The plan was to develop a rural urban renewal zone, and the rules for borrowing money related to a rural urban renewal zone are different from what we have been considering. This is an option I believe we are going to discuss as an alternative to how we are going.?

No action was taken Tuesday, as the issue was only on the agenda for discussion.

During the Aug. 21 meeting., supervisor Abe Miller had asked for a meeting with architects to discuss the price of the building, which had come in higher than expected. Seward had requested putting the amount of up to $4 million on the ballot during the meeting, which is more than the $3 million originally estimated. Seward said the supervisors are early in the planning process of the building and as the blueprints develop the cost can be more accurately estimated.

Miller opposed the idea, saying because taxpayers money was funding the project he believes the taxpayers should have the right to decide whether to move ahead with the project. Supervisor Bob Yoder agreed. If the referendum fails it would be six months before the supervisors could put it out for vote again. The earliest the supervisors can have the vote now is May 2019. During work session Miller had inquired about separating the emergency center from the communications center as a cost savings. Seward believes this would cost more in the long run, saying it will cost more to build an emergency center in the future.

?The financing part would not change as far as issuing bonds ? that would stay the same,? Miller said. ?What changes is the opportunity to take it to the voters in November rather than have the voters create the opportunity to have a referendum.?

At this point, the soonest a bond referendum can be put on a ballot is March 2019. Construction would begin six to eight months following a successful bond vote. Because the supervisors have already ordered the communications equipment with a December 2019 date for it to be installed, the construction of the building has to begin early in 2019. The $6 million in equipment and maintenance was ordered before the building blueprints were started so the county could get a 10 percent discount ($500,000) from rebates based on delivery dates.

Telecommunications director Cara Sorrells has said in previous interviews the existing equipment, which was installed in 2000, is coming to the end of its life and there is no telling how much longer it will last. She said parts for the communications equipment are no longer made and she has had to buy spare parts for the equipment on the internet. She said currently inside buildings portable radios only get through to the communications center about 39 percent of the time. With the new system, that amount will be increased to 95 percent.

If a rural urban renewal area is put in place, which takes about 30 days, the supervisors can expect to be able to bond for the building in about 60 days.

?The delema we are finding ourselves in is how do we move forward to get the needed financing as soon as possible with the least risk to a delay in the project,? Seward said.

The cost of the building is based on an estimate of $300 per square foot for the hardened building designed to stand up against most natural disasters that meets FEMA standards for an emergency center. While the supervisors began working on the project last year due to equipment at the existing communications center reaching the end of its life, discussion on creating a new communications center has been going on for about 18 years.

During discussion, Seward argued that he believes the majority of voters believe the new communications center is a project that is needed and so a vote is not needed. Miller argued that if the majority of people are in favor of the center, then a bond vote shouldn?t be a problem.

?I am thinking about the goal and the best way to do it,? Seward said. ?I am taking to heart that the people who voted me into this seat trusted me to do the right thing. That is where I am heading with this in getting this job done as quickly as possible and do the right thing for the county.?

Stoops agreed this is a benefit for the county and was also confident the vote would pass anyway, ?because people know where we will be at if it doesn?t.?

While Stoops said he doesn?t believe a vote is needed in this case, he stressed having the procedure to file for a special election outlined if anyone chooses that course of action.

Also during discussion Miller said the supervisors had put themselves in the position they are in with the communications building. He said the supervisors had ?put the cart in front of the horse? by having equipment coming before the building is ready or the plans were even drawn.

?I am a firm believer when we spend this kind of money the public has a right to decide because it is their taxes that pays for it,? he said. ?I understand we are in a situation that makes it tough, but the taxpayer didn?t create that.?