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Columbia County covers building project shortfalls, closes financial books

December 21, 2018 GMT

Columbia County Supervisor Adam Field’s myriad questions could be summed up with just one: Are we done paying for those buildings?

Most definitely, replied County Comptroller Lois Schepp.

The lengthy agenda for Wednesday’s Columbia County Board meeting included a resolution that, in effect, closes the books on the biggest building program in county history — a project for which the county borrowed $45.51 million, but ended up paying nearly $47.38 million.

With 2018 drawing to a close soon, the books on the building project must be closed now, Schepp said.

“We have other funding sources to work out that deficit,” Schepp said.

Field, of Portage, also expressed concerns about how any future building-related expenses might be handled, and why the full county board wasn’t consulted on all of the excess building project expenses.

The bulk of the building project entailed construction of two new buildings alongside the Portage Canal — the Administration Building at 112 E. Edgewater St. and the Health and Human Services Building at 111 E. Mullett St. — and the remodeling of the courthouse at 400 DeWitt St. for court-related uses only.

Other aspects included an office remodel and a new semi-automated recycling system at the Solid Waste Department in the town of Pacific, and building a new Highway Department shop in Cambria, as well as repaying the county’s general fund for window replacements at the courthouse that had been completed before the supervisors voted in November 2014 to borrow the $45.51 million.

The resolution, which the board approved unanimously on Wednesday, called for transfer of no more than $530,680 from general fund reserves to offset building project cost overruns that weren’t covered by other sources.

Schepp said the exact amount of available general fund reserves can’t be known until the 2018 budget is closed out. But the county now has a little more than $22 million in general fund reserves, she said.

The Government Finance Officers Association, however, recommends that government bodies retain enough in reserves to operate for two to three months. Columbia County’s total budget for 2019, as adopted in November, is a little more than $78.79 million.

Schepp said the actual expenses for the project exceeded the amount borrowed by about 4.1 percent, or $1.87 million.

Some of the overages — like the decision to replace the videoconferencing system in all three branch courtrooms with a digital system, as part of the courthouse remodeling — were put to a full vote of the county board. That expense, $292,000, also came from general fund reserves, and got county board approval in June 2017.

The board’s Finance Committee approved, in April 2017, a transfer of $481,650 from a building maintenance account to cover the cost of installing new climate control systems in conjunction with the courthouse remodel.

In other cases, the higher-than-planned expenditures were authorized either by the board’s Ad Hoc Building Committee (dissolved in July) or board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage.

Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf said Gove and the building committee approved higher-than-expected costs — such as when bids came in high — for the sake of expediency.

And, the county hasn’t yet received all the money that is likely to be applied to building project overages.

The recently vacated Health and Human Services building, located in Portage’s industrial park at 2652 Murphy Road, has not been sold, Ruf noted. But when it is sold, the sale proceeds would replenish much, and possibly all, of the $530,680 taken from the general fund to cover the shortfall. The appraised value of the property is about $773,000.

For any future building-related expenditures that might crop up, Schepp said the county has available about $364,000 in premiums on the bonds for the building project, which could be tapped instead of the general fund.

But for all practical purposes, she said, the board’s action on the resolution closes the financial books on the building project.