Purpose of May public hearing on courthouse space project unclear
The Stillwater County Commissioners have set a May 5 public hearing date regarding the courthouse space project.
The exact purpose of that public hearing is unclear. Commissioners did not return emails by press time seeking clarification.
Four options ranging from approximately $6 million to $17 million were presented at three public meetings held by the Stillwater County Commissioners and Spectrum Group Architects in January. The current courthouse is aging and is too small to house all county offices.
The four options, or alternatives as they are referred to, are as follows:
•Alternate 1: Remodeling the old hospital and the first floor of the current courthouse: $6.37 million
•Alternate 2: Remodeling the current courthouse and construction of a new law & justice facility at the courthouse: $15.32 million
•Alternate 3: Remodeling the current courthouse and construction of a new law & justice facility on a new site: $17.17 million
•Alternate 4: Completely new county facilities on a new site: $17.54 million
Independent evaluation report
The High Plains Evaluation report on the business relationship break-down between the Lame Deer School and Spectrum during a multi-million project was filed in the Stillwater County Clerk Recorder’s Office on Friday, April 3, by the Commissioner’s office.
Spectrum denied a request to provide the commissioners with the report, stating in a letter to the commissioners that there is a confidentiality clause in their settlement agreement with the Lame Deer School.
Commissioners made no mention of the report at this week’s regularly held meeting.
So far, a total of six letters have been received and filed regarding feedback on the four options.
A letter from the Town of Columbus/Stillwater County Historic Preservation Committee recommends Alternative 2 as it will “preserve an important part of our history, fulfill the need for the a new law & justice center and meet existing and future needs of the county,” according to the letter signed by commissioner chairwoman Joan L. Brownell.
The letter also states “As the only substantial civic building left in the county, it is worthy of preservation.”
A letter from the Montana State Historic Preservation Office recommends Alternative 2 for similar reasons, stating “The retention of such a landmark building positively reflects on Stillwater County. Investment in the past signifies a strong commitment to the future.”
Resident Joe Welter submitted a letter favoring Alternative 4, writing that “a one time investment in a totally new Center for County government is a sensible answer. Yes, it will cost a lot of money up front, but the likelihood of the need to come back to the taxpayer in a relatively short time for more of our money would be reduced to negligible. As one of those taxpayers, I am in favor of paying for it once, and being done with it. The other options do not afford us that opportunity.”
Resident Scott Waltner shared similar thoughts in a letter, writing “...since tax money is used for capital improvement project lets spend the money in the most cost effective up to date and state of the art way possible...spend the money once on a new facility and don’t Band-Aid together old buildings that may look like less money in the short-term, but in the long run end up as money pits.”
Waltner does not specify Alternative 4 as being his pick, but writes that he is in favor of one new facility that could house all county offices.
Resident Bill Hagen opens his letter to the commissioners writing “You are getting unwarranted criticism. I suggest that you pass the buck and create an unpaid ad hoc citizens committee to study the entire issue and make a recommendation to you.”
Hagen points out that taxpayers are potentially facing two hits in the courthouse and the need for a new elementary school. Hagen pitches a possible idea about “sell, buy or swap” amongst the vacant school property on the east side, the “Little Metra,” the current elementary school and the old hospital. Hagen also writes that it is a “rough plan” in need of refinement “but it beats the options presently on the table.”
The final letter filed is from Stillwater County Undersheriff Chip Kem. Noting that he is expressing his views as both the undersheriff and a taxpayer, Kem writes “Of the alternatives presented by Spectrum Group Architects, I am only comfortable with Alternative 4 as a whole, and a version of Alternative 2 with some modifications and conditions.”
Kem notes Stillwater County has doubled in population since 1980 and that current growth trends in this and surrounding counties indicate this will continue and writes “though this proposal is the most costly, it may very well save money in the long run if planned appropriately and built professionally.”
Alternative 4 would also be the least disruptive to county offices.
“This point is of great concern, in particular,” wrote Kem. “As a 24/7 operation we cannot simply ‘shut down’ or ‘relocate’ while work is being doing done.”
Kem addresses Alternate 2 by stating “The drawing that Spectrum Group Architects submitted is unacceptable as presented. They show the addition covering our existing dispatch center and office. The potential for disruption that this construction project would cause is too great.”
Kem suggests moving the addition in Alternative 2 to the north-west corner or the east side of the existing courthouse, as those would still allow connection to the new building through elevators or sky-bridges.
Kem also addresses the use of Spectrum Group Architects.
“Regardless of what direction the public decides to take, I must voice my opposition to using Spectrum Group Architects in the future,” Kem wrote. “Although my interaction with them has been limited, the information provided by them to date has appeared incomplete and flawed. I would also strongly recommend that you read the ‘Third Party Evaluation’ regarding the Lame Deer Elementary School. It is a public document that I obtained a copy of. I suggest you read this not only to learn about serious issues involving Spectrum, but also as a general learning tool to educate all of us about mistakes that can be avoided in a project of this magnitude.”