The people who design and maintain Washington County’s modern new roads and buildings are working in leaky, fire-endangered structures that cost a fortune to heat, a new county report concludes.
Most of the county’s public works staff, which includes engineers, park supervisors and snowplow drivers, work in worn-out buildings that don’t meet current safety codes, the report said. Buildings for repairing county vehicles, including Sheriff’s Office patrol cars, lack sufficient space for maintenance, it said.
“We still working out of the same buildings when we had no four-lane highways, no traffic signals, no regional parks,” Don Theisen, the public works manager, told the County Board recently. “Even more eye-opening is that our buildings use more energy than Historic Courthouse, built in 1870.”
In recent years Theisen has led a series of major county building projects, including the $56 million overhaul of the main county campus in Stillwater, completed in 2010. That project included a new courts building, an expanded Law Enforcement Center, and renovated offices in the adjoining five-story county office building.
The county also built satellite service centers in Forest Lake and Cottage Grove in 2007.
Most of the county’s public works staff and equipment is concentrated at the “north shop” on Myeron Road north of Stillwater. The county also has a “south shop” off Bailey Road in Woodbury.
Conditions at both shops were widely condemned in the report, compiled by architects, engineers and builders the county hired to make inspections.
The main public works building was constructed in 1962 when the county’s population was fewer than 55,000 residents. Now the population exceeds 240,000, bringing a greater demand for services ranging from law enforcement to food support to improved roads and bridges.
Making the north shop compliant with current building codes would cost about $5.1 million. The building lacks any fire-suppression sprinklers and provides less than half the space needed today. It has no locker rooms for female employees, cramped conference rooms, inadequate stormwater and septic systems, substandard heating and ventilating systems and no disability-accessible toilets, the report concluded.
The south shop, now 42 years old, has many of the same shortcomings and some that are even worse, including a water source declared unsafe by the Minnesota Department of Health, the report said.
Theisen told county commissioners that the poor condition of buildings was resulting in wasteful spending, including $90,000 a year in energy losses because of uninsulated walls. The salt shed at the south shop, he said, is so undersized that the county resorts to special deliveries and overtime to haul salt from the north shop during winter storms.
Theisen presented three possible scenarios to commissioners at a recent workshop.
In the first, the county would invest in code compliance and deferred maintenance at both shops for a cost of about $6 million. In the second, the county would rebuild the north shop and build a new south shop for an estimated $23 million. In the third, the main public works offices would be built at a new location in the southern portion of the county, and the north shop would become a “satellite” shop for a cost of about $27 million.
Addressing needs of the Sheriff’s Office, which maintains an impound lot and shooting range at the north shop and also stores patrol cars and other vehicles there, would cost about $2 million.
New construction would meet county needs through 2022, Theisen said.
“You’ve never seen the county have a significant spike in property taxes because we’ve always had a long-term plan,” Theisen said after the meeting.
His presentation was one in a series of annual budget discussions before the County Board. Commissioners didn’t make a decision and no date was set for further action.