Meadville Tribune

Local News

January 13, 2013

SUNDAY ISSUE: Long road ahead for Talon site

MEADVILLE — 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.

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