Meadville Tribune

July 14, 2013

County purchase of former Talon complex: Money pit?

By Keith Gushard
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — The potential total cost of building project to alleviate overcrowding at the Crawford County Courthouse has climbed by more than 20 percent — or more than $5 million — from the original estimate made about 18 months ago with no decision as yet by county commissioners.

In late January 2012, a citizens’ study committee recommended the current courthouse on Diamond Park in downtown Meadville be renovated into an administrative center and while the county-owned former Talon Inc. site on upper Arch Street be renovated into a county courts complex with some other outlying county departments into one of the two sites.

That recommendation had a projected cost of $25.3 million, but it’s now risen to between $30.5 million and $31.2 million — an increase of 20.5 to 23.3 percent.

“It concerns me. At this point I’m not sure,” Francis Weiderspahn Jr., chairman of county commissioners, said in a recent interview when asked if the project was affordable. “I’d also want input from the public before we’d pull the trigger on this.”

“It’s difficult to say whether we can or not without the (full) financial information,” Commissioner Jack Lynch said. “We have to understand fully the financial part.”

“Whether it’s affordable — that’s a good question,” Commissioner C. Sherman Allen said.

What’s driven up the cost from the original projection is a better refinement of total cost, according to commissioners. The original estimate by the study committee was just on basic construction costs, Weiderspahn said. Other factors such the information technology costs for both buildings and the total cost of three new courtrooms weren’t included, he said.

Before any decision happens, though, commissioners say they want to know the county’s true financial picture.

Weiderspahn said he’d then want to lay the whole project out to the public before making a decision.

The county is awaiting completion of its 2012 comprehensive audit, according to the commissioners. The audit is underway and on schedule to be completed and filed with the state by the Sept. 30 deadline, Weiderspahn said.

The county has an estimated $3 million in reserve funds, but a full accounting of those funds won’t be known until the audit is finished; then, the county must determine if any of those reserve funds are restricted to specific uses, Weiderspahn said.

Allen expressed hope that the board would come to a decision soon.

“We’ve got $3 million into it and we’ve not solved anything,” Allen said, referring to the more than $3 million the county has spent since 2010 on costs associated with the proposed project. Those costs date back to late 2010 when the previous board of commissioners first took out options to buy the Talon site.

Allen said he still supports the study committee’s recommendation to split the courthouse functions among two sites and consolidate some other outlying county departments into them.

“We have to update,” Allen said, noting the current board of commissioners is taking steps this summer to make repairs the courthouse roof. “We’ve got buckets catching rain water in the clock tower.”

A recommendation to split the courthouse functions among two sites came in late January 2012 from an all-volunteer Community Advisory Committee that was appointed in the summer of 2011 by the previous board of commissioners. The project is aimed at easing problems faced daily in an overcrowded and out-of-date courthouse. The last major renovation to the courthouse was in the mid-1950s and was projected to last 50 years.

The split recommendation came after months of study of several options, including expanding the current courthouse and building an entirely new facility. The study committee’s recommendation and other options were presented at a series of meetings across the county that began in February 2012.

When commissioners approved the 2013 county budget on Dec. 6, 2012, one of the announced goals for the new year was determining the county’s total amount of reserve funds in various accounts and whether any of those funds have restricted uses.

Until the total financial picture is clear, commissioners said the county can’t determine what its bond rating may be so it could be able to borrow money and how much it would be able to borrow — if the project does go forward.

Any change in interest rates — especially upward — also would increase costs, according to commissioners.

Commissioners have taken some steps to lower costs associated with the Talon Inc. site.

Demolition of Building C, a multi-story masonry building on the Talon site, was completed in 2012. Talon’s Building C never figured into the county’s final plans because portions of it lacked structural stability. Maintenance on Building C had been deferred over the years.

In the late fall, the county awarded contracts to separate the mechanical, plumbing, electrical and fire protection systems of Building A from Buildings B, D and E. Separation of the utility systems lowers costs by keeping only Building A, an office building with only one tenant, fully functional. Buildings B, D and E are unoccupied and don’t require utility service. Asbestos also was removed from the buildings on the Talon site.

“We’re ready to go if we elect to go forward,” Lynch said. “We’ve also got a project we could sell to a developer or other partner if we don’t.

“The $3 million we’ve spent isn’t an insignificant amount,” Lynch said. “But when Talon was bought in 2010, there was no plan attached to it on what to do with it.”

A decision by commissioners on whether to move forward with the proposed project has been pushed back several times within the last 18 months. It was pushed back several times during 2012, and in January of this year, commissioners had expressed to make a decision by spring.

If it does go forward, the project is expected to be done in phases over several years. Formal design work would take about one year to complete followed by renovations to the Talon site first, shifting county court functions and related offices there before renovating the courthouse.

However, no matter which way the project goes, commissioners are making some capital improvements to the courthouse itself due to years of neglect. Repairs are being made this summer to roof leaks at the courthouse as well as masonry work on the brick exterior.



Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.



 Meadville Tribune

Crawford County government has had a net cost of almost $3.2 million since 2010 on the former Talon Inc. site on Arch Street in Meadville — a property and buildings it still hasn’t decided if it will use.

The county has spent more than $3.3 million on the former Talon Inc. site and courthouse renovations and earned a little more than $132,000 in income from rent at Talon during the period, according to records from the Crawford County Finance Office.

Potential reuse of the Talon Inc. site as a county courts complex is part of multi-million dollar proposal to alleviate overcrowding at the Crawford County Courthouse in downtown Meadville. The proposal would split courthouse offices between the present courthouse building and Talon site, but county commissioners have taken no formal vote on whether to proceed with the project.

A lack of action is no reflection on the current board of commissioners, according to Francis Weiderspahn Jr., the chairman of the current board.

Weiderspahn said that determining what to do with the former Talon site won’t happen until the county gets its finances in shape — including determining how much it could borrow if the county chooses to move forward with the project.



History

The county’s acquisition of the Talon property came about under the previous board of commissioners and it stirred some controversy.

The previous board of commissioners at public meetings entered into several options to buy the site, citing the possibility of using it to expand courthouse offices it claimed were overcrowded and outdated. Then, on Feb. 28, 2011, without presenting a plan to the public or announcing a meeting to discuss the matter, the commissioners exercised the option to buy the building. After the Tribune raised questions about the legality of the commissioners entering into a contract without a formal public meeting or vote, the three retroactively and unanimously voted to purchase the property March 3, 2011, at a public meeting.

At the time, Commissioner Chairman Morris Waid and Commissioner Jack Preston, who had previously announced their intention to retire, and Commissioner C. Sherman Allen, who was successful in his re-election bid and remains a commissioner today, said they were not sure the county would use the building but that they wanted to secure the site and undertake a study.

The move drew some criticism as the Meadville Redevelopment Authority unsuccessfully had sought a buyer for the site for many years and the last private owner failed, handing the property back to the authority.

Next, the county hired the Weber, Murphy, Fox engineering and design firm to design several alternatives for courthouse expansion, including use of the Talon site, expanding the current courthouse, splitting between the two and building at a new site.

A Community Advisory Committee of unpaid volunteers was appointed by the former board of commissioners to study the options and make a recommendation. Ultimately, the CAC recommended renovating the Talon site and splitting county government operations between there and the current courthouse on Diamond Park at a projected cost of $25.3 million. The CAC took its recommendation on the road for a series of public presentations that ended in late March 2012. That projected cost now has risen to between $30.5 million and $31.2 million — an increase of 20.5 to 23.3 percent.