During the nearly 4-year process of addressing the issue of crowded county office space and an aging courthouse, the Stillwater County Commissioners have consistently been one thing — non-transparent.
Their process started with looking at just one option — remodeling the old hospital. It was only when several department heads — namely District Judge Blair Jones — strongly objected to this approach through a formal letter that the issue was made public and the study for possible other options was broadened.
A handful of options were eventually presented at three public meetings. A public comment period was held. To date, less than five citizens have publicly voiced support for remodeling the old hospital and several more have spoken against it. The majority of the public who have offered input favor remodeling the current courthouse and an on-site construction of a second building.
Yet last November, the commissioners officially announced they had chosen the option that drew the least public support on the record — remodeling the old hospital.
So although it’s taxpayer money that will fund the project, the taxpayers didn’t get to choose the option they wanted.
Not only was the public’s input apparently disregarded, the commissioners never bothered to mention that the Columbus School District had expressed interest in acquiring the old hospital from the county as it looked to ease its own over-crowding issues. The school made that inquiry in October 2016 and was told the commissioners would get back to them. They never did.
But the day after that meeting, the commissioners announced they had chosen to remodel the old hospital. Surely the commissioners knew that the day before when Columbus Superintendent Jeff Burmese had meet with them. Why the secrecy or perhaps more appropriately, why we’re they silent?
By the time the school’s interest in the building was made public, it was too late as Bermes had been forced to look in other directions.
When asked about the lack of disclosure, the commissioners responded by saying the meeting with Bermes had been posted on its website and in the courthouse.
Given the gravity of the project at hand and the controversies that had already arisen, posting the notice of the meeting hardly qualifies as informing the public.
And it continues.
A recent assessment revealed 15,000 square feet of asbestos and mercury tabbed as “contaminants of concern” by inspectors.
Remediation of the asbestos is estimated at $200,000 and must be done. That cost could be covered by a federal grant but there is no guarantee. Deeming the building a “public nuisance” full of liability issues, Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde immediately advised the commission to shut down the building, pull out the facilities supervisor and his crew and seal the structure off until further testing can be done.
Newly elected Commissioner Mark Crago acted on that recommendation while Commissioner Davey called the county’s insurance to question the liability angle.
Taxpayers should be questioning just how much longer and how much more money should be spent on a building that the public has repeatedly said it does not want.