By Keith Gushard
Until the county’s true financial picture becomes clearer later this year, don’t expect Crawford County commissioners to take a vote on what may happen to the former Talon Inc. plant site the county owns, though one commissioner is poised to do so.
At this point, the new board of commissioners — Francis Weiderspahn, Jack Lynch and C. Sherman Allen — has been in office for 12 months, but has made no decision on a potential $25.3 million capital project.
The proposed project would alleviate overcrowding at the Crawford County Courthouse on Diamond Park in downtown Meadville by renovating space at the current courthouse and renovating the former Talon site on upper Arch Street into a county courts building.
But for two of the three board members — Weiderspahn and Lynch — the reason for no action to this point comes down to finances.
While the county has an estimated $3 million in reserve funds, a full reckoning of those funds isn’t expected to be known until mid-year, according to the county’s new finance director. In addition, the county must determine if any of those fund are restricted to specific uses.
“We still don’t have where we are financially,” Weiderspahn, county commissioner chairman, said in a recent interview.
“We have to understand fully the financial part,” Lynch said recently when asked about why a vote has not been taken as yet. “That (finances) will make it a ‘go or no go’ decision.”
When the county’s third commissioner, Allen, was asked, he said “I’m ready. I’m prepared to go that route (splitting courthouse functions between two sites).”
Late last year, Allen voiced support for commissioners making some type of decision.
“If we’re not going to proceed with our project — or if we are — then we better make an official decision so the public knows what we’re doing,” Allen said at the commissioners’ Nov. 15, 2012, meeting. Allen also voiced support for a study committee’s $25.3 million recommendation to split the courthouse functions among two sites and consolidate some other outlying county departments into one of the two sites.
“I know it’s a lot of money,” Allen said at the time. “I’ve been here almost five years, but I know something has to be done with our facilities.”
The 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.
The county has an estimated $3 million in reserve funds in various accounts, according to Jody Marley, the county’s chief financial officer, who was named to that post last summer.
But, what the county doesn’t have are the exact totals in those reserve accounts and if there are any restrictions on any of those reserve accounts, Marley said. That information won’t be known until about mid-year after a review of the reserve accounts, she said.
As part of that review, an actuarial study of the county’s workers’ compensation fund will be done in May to determine if it’s overfunded, Marley said. The county self-insures its workers’ compensation fund, which provides for medical expenses and wage-loss benefits to an injured worker. If the county’s workers’ compensation fund is overfunded, the excess money may be able to be shifted to other areas.
Until the total financial picture is in focus, commissioners said the county won’t be able to determine what its bond rating is to be able to borrow money and how much it would be able to borrow if the project is a go.
Commissioners say they have been refining the advisory committee’s recommendation with Weber Murphy Fox, the county’s architectural firm on the project, and until the county’s financial picture is clearer, the commissioners are disinclined to act on the project.
In the interim, 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. The separation is estimated to save the county about $30,000 on natural gas costs alone during the winter of 2012-2013.
The decision by commissioners on whether to move forward with the proposed project was pushed back several times during 2012.
The Community Advisory Committee took its recommendation on the road for a series of public presentations around the county that ended in late March 2012.
Since then, Weiderspahn said, county department heads have been assessing the plans and providing feedback, and the commissioners have been meeting with representatives of Weber, Murphy, Fox to revise plans for Talon.
“It didn’t get it into the hands of the commissioners until March (2012) after the committee’s meetings around the county,” Weiderspahn said. “If we do it, I’m looking for the most economical way and where we get the best bang for our buck.”
“The next step is to tee up the financial information and know what we’re eligible to potentially borrow (in bond market),” said Lynch. “There’s no way I’d make an informed decision without it. The last thing I’d want us to do is embark on a project and find we didn’t allow for this or didn’t allow for that.”
Weiderspahn said he is hopeful a decision will be made this year.
“Ideally, whatever we do, — if we go forward — we do it in the spring,” he said, so the project could go to bid.
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 said the county must make some capital improvements to the courthouse itself due to years of neglect. Portions of the courthouse roof leak, windows in the courthouse are single-pane glass that has putty falling away in some areas, and masonry work on the brick exterior has chipped away, too.
“The windows, doors and roof need upgraded no matter what,” Weiderspahn said.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.
Crawford County government has spent a total of $1.5 million in the past 22 months 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 $1.6 million on the former Talon Inc. site and earned just under $96,000 in income from rent 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 a $25.3 million 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, 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.
“We need to know where we stand,” Weiderspahn said. “Otherwise, I’m not comfortable.”
Is the estimated pricetag for renovating the courthouse and former Talon building reasonable? And wouldn’t the county save money if it rented the space it needed instead?
We put those questions to some experts. Regarding the overall cost, it appears this project is on target, but the issue of renting versus renovating in much less clear.
Based on a $25.3 million project and the total of 174,000 square feet of space for the courthouse and Talon site — 64,000 square feet at the courthouse and 110,000 square feet at Talon — the per square foot cost to renovate is $145.40 without factoring in the cost to the county of borrowing the money to pay for the project. Currently, that cost is unknown as the county’s Board of Commissioners has yet to ask banks for proposals.
The $145.40 per square foot to renovate isn’t unreasonable, given the fact both sites have brick and stone structures built more than a half-century ago, according to Tom Montagna, president of the Builders Association of Northwest Pennsylvania.
“The shell is up, but now you have to apply current building codes,” said Montagna. “You have to be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant for handicapped accessibility. Anything you touch has to be brought up to code.”
If the county opted to rent that same amount of office space in Meadville — 174,000 square feet — it may cost $4 to $14 per square foot per year, according to several local Realtors. The wide range is based on a number of factors including condition of the property, location, handicapped accessibility and parking, according to Realtors.
Based on a $4 per square foot cost, a lease for 174,000 square feet is $696,000 a year, or $17.4 million for 25 years. If just 110,000 square feet are leased, the same $4 cost would be $440,000 a year or $11 million for 25 years. The 25-year total doesn’t factor in any rent increase.
Based on a cost of $14 per square foot, a lease for 174,000 square feet is $2,436,000 a year, or $60.9 million for 25 years. If just 110,000 square feet are leased, the same $14 cost would be $1.54 million a year, or $38.5 million for 25 years. The 25-year total doesn’t factor in any rent increase.
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 they 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.
Talon site costs
$117,036.18 Weber Murphy Fox (architectural and consultant fees)
$145,105.98 expenditures on building (utilities, insurance, other costs)
$304,308.23 capital projects (building purchase includes $70,000 in options)
$566,450.39 total expenses
Net cost 2011
$497,283.66 Weber Murphy Fox (architectural and consultant fees)
$176,692.48 expenditures on building (utilities, insurance, other costs)
$362,186.60 capital projects (building demolition including hazardous material removal)
Net cost 2012
Total net cost (2011 and 2012)