Effort to have old hospital remodel decision rescinded unsuccessful
An effort to reverse the decision to turn the old hospital into county offices failed Tuesday morning.
Stillwater County Commissioner-elect Mark Crago and Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde had filed a request with the commissioners to rescind a resolution adopted on Nov. 1 that officially designated the old hospital as the site of county offices, with the exception of the courts and law enforcement. The commissioners had approximately $3.4 million to make the renovations and would not have to go to the taxpayers for additional money.
The courts and law enforcement will be left at the current courthouse.
The decision came after the public was presented with multiple scenarios which ranged from remodeling the old hospital and the first floor of the court house to building new facilities on a new site.
The public was not presented with the option of only remodeling the old hospital. Commissioners have defended the decision by pointing to a public meeting in 2011 about paying off the bonds for the hospital at which there was no objection to using the old hospital for office space.
On Tuesday morning, Crago laid out his reasons for requesting the rescinding of the resolution as follows:
•There is no “documented approval to move forward in this fashion” from the public and people are “very adamant” against the use of the old hospital in this way.
•The $3.4 million could be better spent.
•Ambiguous wording on the agenda the day the decision was announced made it impossible for the public to realize the topic at hand.
•The reason given by the commissioners for not having the resolution on the county’s website the day of the announcement being that it was still being worked on created a problem with open meeting laws. Crago said that while he did not think it was intentional, it was nonetheless problematic as far as being in compliance with open meeting laws.
Commissioner Maureen Davey interrupted Crago at this point.
“Can I ask a question? Are you an attorney?” Davey asked.
Crago responded that he is not an attorney, but had consulted a total of four attorneys about the matter – including Rohde, an attorney for the Montana Association of Counties (MACo) and Freedom of Information attorney Mike Meloy.
Davey called the matter “highly irregular,” pointing out the Crago does not take office until next month and asked Rohde if she was representing the commissioners.
Rohde responded that she is looking out for the county and that it is appropriate for her to talk with Crago as well as any other citizen. Rohde also said she shares Crago’s concerns.
Crago then told the commissioners that the MACo attorney had told him to speak with Rohde about the matter.
“Did he say talk to us?” Davey asked.
“No,” Crago answered.
Rohde said — and has told the commissioners in a letter — that she has concerns about activity taking place in the old hospital and that might be posing liability risks for the county.
“These things are being done piecemeal,” said Rohde, who emphasized the entire project needs to be treated and approached as a capital improvement project.
Rohde also told the commissioners she is looking out for the county and knows they don’t feel as if she is.
“It’s because I tell you what you don’t want to hear,” said Rohde, which Davey immediately denied.
Both Crago and Rohde recommended the commissioners form a steering committee to go forward with the project.
Coralee Hicks also spoke and said she had reviewed the file kept in the Clerk & Recorders Office and has not been able to find a plan for this project. Hicks recited portions of reports from engineers regarding potential problems with the old hospital building.
“Are you a builder?” Davey asked Hicks.
“May I have my say please? You’re asking for comment,” Hicks responded.
Hicks gave the commissioners credit for moving forward with the project but said they needed to hire experts and let the public know the plans.
“You’re not omnipotent. You don’t know everything,” said Hicks.
At the close of the comments, Davey said an architect and engineer were hired and that all of the information was in the Clerk & Recorder’s Office. Davey also characterized Crago’s and Rohde’s actions regarding the old hospital as “hostile” and “secretive” and denied hiding anything about the project from the public.
Commissioner chairman Dennis Shupak then asked if there was a motion regarding the request, which there was not.
“If there’s no motion, there’s no action to be taken,” said Dell. “It stands as it is.”
The county has outgrown the current courthouse, with some offices already off-site. Additionally, the aging building is not ADA compliant. Four alternatives were developed through two feasibility studies over the course of nearly three years at a cost of approximately $70,000.
Four alternatives were presented during three public meetings held at the beginning of 2015, ranging from $6 million to $17 million and 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
A public hearing was held on May 7, 2015 and the written public comment period closed on May 19, 2015. As of the close of the public comment period, no letters had been filed in the Clerk & Recorder’s Office expressing support for Alternative 1, which is the only alternative that involved the old hospital. No one spoke in favor of using the old hospital at the public hearing.