Demolition of Washington County's outdated public works complex will begin in May, but the project's growing price tag came under fire last week.

Problems with deficient, 1960s-era buildings became apparent years ago. The County Board stood squarely behind a plan to rebuild the complex north of Stillwater because of fire danger, lack of space for work on big trucks, and exorbitant heating costs.

But at a workshop last week, two commissioners questioned why the project's cost was growing beyond its original $17.5 million budget to $20 million or more.

"I have no concept at this point what the final cost of this build out is going to be," said Commissioner Gary Kriesel.

Another commissioner, Karla Bigham, said she calculated that additional expenses related to a salt shed, a new sewer system and temporary offices for displaced county employees could drive the overall project cost to as high as $20.5 million.

"This is the reality of building a project of this magnitude," replied Don Theisen, the county's public works director. "This $17.5 million [budget] has been around five years at least. Inflation has eaten at least 20 percent."

The complex, known as the North Shop, houses dozens of county engineers and park managers, all of the county's snowplows, and several Sheriff's Office vehicles.

Theisen has told the County Board that the complex was built in 1962 when the county had fewer than 55,000 residents. Now, nearly a quarter million people live in the county, bringing a greater demand for public works services ranging from snowplowing and vehicle repair to improved roads and bridges.

The North Shop uses more energy than the county's Historic Courthouse in Stillwater, built in 1870, he said.

Making the existing public works structure compliant with current building codes would cost millions of dollars, a county report determined. The building lacks fire-suppression sprinklers and provides less than half the space needed.

In formal action last week, the County Board approved spending about $500,000 to connect the North Shop to Stillwater's sewer system. Septic disposal at the 54-acre site, north of Stillwater, was environmentally irresponsible, Theisen said, and threatened nearby wetlands.

The County Board also voted last week to install a fiber optics connection along the path of the sewer line.

Reasons for higher costs in rebuilding the North Shop include possible installation of solar panels, and whether to build temporary pole barns to house vehicles.

Employees will move to temporary quarters at the Washington County Conservation District, the courts building in Stillwater and a building on Greeley Avenue in Stillwater until the project is completed in 2017, Theisen said.

Commissioners debated whether temporary structures should instead be built for long-term use, but workshops are advisory and the matter will appear soon on a County Board agenda for a vote.

"I understand the original scope of work didn't include moving the employees out of the North Shop. Things change," said Commissioner Lisa Weik.