Image Link 12/18/2016

Blunder.....or Typical Elbert County??

What does a county government do when it suddenly finds itself with $500,000 burning a hole in its pocket? Fix its badly deteriorating roads? Restore the county government to serving its citizens 5 days a week? Give employees some well-deserved raises? Update technology? Perhaps hire much needed personnel (i.e., a code enforcement officer, a certified/licensed commercial appraiser, a certified planner....all currently non-existent staff positions)?

Some background:

- Elbert County recently refinanced a $5 million plus loan on the justice center.
- The previous lender, Wells Fargo, required that the county hold $500,000 in reserves to ensure that EC could make its payments.
- The current lender requires no such reserves, thus making $500,000 available in the county coffers.

So, in response to the newly discovered cash, the county commissioners, at their regularly scheduled meeting on December 7, 2016, authorized (by a 2-1 vote: Rowland and Willcox in favor, Ross opposed) County Manager Ed Ehmann to pursue the purchase of the shuttered Bank of the West building in Kiowa....currently listed for sale at $548,000. A few glaring concerns (a.k.a. lack of research) with this plan:

  • 1) No bids or estimates were presented projecting renovation costs to convert a bank to usable county office space (which would also necessitate making the building handicap accessible - installation of an elevator in order to utilize the lower level, etc.). Renovation is more costly than new construction, requiring both tear-out and rebuild.
  • 2) The only testimonials for the need to purchase this building came from county clerk Dallas Schroeder and county treasurer Rick Petit, who basically stated that their offices have "nowhere else to put people" in order to serve citizens efficiently. Interestingly, the main customer services performed by these departments (payment of license plate renewals and property taxes) are available online, thus reducing the need for more space to provide citizen contact.

  • 3) The county managed to house all the county services when the assessor's office had more than twice the number of employees than it currently has, when the building department actually had certified planners on staff (we have gone from two to zero) short, before the serious staffing reductions over the past several years. And yet we can't manage to find space for the current staff? (Keep in mind that county population has changed very little over the past 10 years, theoretically requiring similar levels of service.)
  • 4) Ed Ehmann stated that any costs above the $500,000 could be paid for via "ending fund balances." This from a county manager whose county, per the auditor, has been losing assets to the tune of approximately $3 million/year. So rather than spending our "ending fund balances" on what they should be spent on....replacing/repairing already existing assets....let's find something new to buy.

If we truly do have a shortage of space (which is questionable since an analysis of current usage vs. needs has not been performed or presented to the public or to the county commissioners), let's look at some possible solutions that would more effectively utilize taxpayers' money:

  • - There are 2 large, county-owned buildings at the fairgrounds that sit vacant a good share of the about creating some more office space in one of these buildings?
  • - Or renting/leasing office space? Plenty of space is available in Elizabeth or in the strip mall on Singing Hills Rd. Renting space requires less capital outlay than purchasing, renovating and maintaining new property. Location of some county offices to the northwestern part of the county also would provide better accessibility to a larger portion of the county population.
  • - The Elizabeth Library has a large vacant area in the back of the building; has anybody investigated the possibility of leasing this space?
  • - Hire a professional firm to analyze current usage/space and provide options to redesign the existing space into an efficient, 21st century operation.

Fortunately, the agreement signed has a 60-day clause allowing the county to back out of this contract for "any reason." Let's hope the new commissioners look at the folly of this hasty decision, take a step back, thoroughly investigate the actual cost of making the bank space usable, survey what other options might be available in the county for additional space, and ultimately make the very best use of the taxpayers' money.

Jill Duvall