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Annex among priorities set by commissioners

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Bartholomew County Commissioners are weighing whether to try pushing ahead on a new county annex building in East Columbus this year as some long-term projects near completion and the three-member group sets the county’s upcoming priorities.

For the first time in nine years, the County Commissioners will have a new face making decisions, as Rick Flohr joins Carl Lienhoop and Larry Kleinhenz on the county’s executive body. Commissioners are in the process of weighing what the new year will bring, what they hope to finish and what they hope to start working toward.

The commissioners said they view the process as one of slow and steady improvement. County government doesn’t generate the same amount of money as the city of Columbus, meaning projects take longer to reach fruition.

“You’ve got to understand there isn’t a whole lot of money to go around,” said County Attorney Grant Tucker. “Given that, sometimes you hope that nothing comes up.”

Annex controversy

County Commissioners still are deciding whether to try to move forward this year with replacement of the county annex building on State Street. The 84-year-old building is the former State Street School and is used for the Bartholomew County Health Department clinic and the Purdue Extension Office.

So far, the County Council has shown a reluctance to fund the replacement project and have suggested the county instead look for rental space, or find already existing buildings to purchase, rather than build a new one.

“If we choose to continue to push with that project, it is going to become pretty cumbersome because we are going to have to build a core of support to get it done. And if we aren’t willing to do that, it looks like it is not going to happen,” Kleinhenz said.

Commissioners said that the building suffers from plumbing and structural problems, crumbling sewer lines, needed roof repairs, as well as not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

“If you look around, it is falling down around your ears, really,” Flohr said.

Right now it needs about $1.5 million in repairs, they said. Kleinhenz said the commissioners have set aside close to $700,000 for a new annex building. However, replacing the aging structure with a new building is expected to be a $3.5 million to $5 million project.

Kleinhenz said commissioners made a conscious effort in recent years to delay expensive maintenance on the building, with an eye toward saving the money for new construction.

“We made that decision 15 years ago to keep it open, maintain what we had to, but not to make investments in the building,” Kleinhenz said. “Now, based on our plan, it is time to replace it. Because literally we feel like we have saved enough to pay for half of the (new) building.”

Lienhoop said renting seems like a bad idea in the long run.

“We are not looking at five or 10 years, we are looking at 50 to 75 years,” Lienhoop said. “County government is going to always be here in some form. And renting just does not seem to be a very good candidate for a long-term goal, in our opinion.”

Former Commissioner Paul Franke, who left the board last week, said he hopes the city’s plans to improve State Street as an entrance to the city will lead County Council members to grow warmer on the annex project.

“We have said, amongst the three of us, that we don’t want a building that is going to be on the architectural tour, but we want a building that will help uplift the neighborhood,” Franke said.

Projects finishing

Barring any weather delays or hiccups with funding, the county should finish County Road 600N this year — a 17-plus-year project to create a main road across the northern part of the county, connecting Hope and Taylorsville.

“That won’t be contentious; that is just going to happen,” Lienhoop said. “That is just going to fall into place.”

Commissioners are also optimistic that an old bridge in Newbern will finally be replaced this year. The project, started in 1999, would replace a 102-year-old bridge.

Since planning began, the project has been delayed for archaeological digs, for historic studies on the bridge itself and with problems sorting out who owns various pieces of the right-of-way. As recently as last month, county officials were told that the state was pulling the funding for the project because it has taken so long to get it started.

Because of the bridge’s historic nature, the county had to find a place to put the old bridge. At various times, the county parks department and Columbus Regional Hospital had been interested in using the old structure, but ultimately the city will use it as part of the People Trail over 25th Street.

The bridge replacement’s total cost is expected to be about $1.5 million, with the county having to pay 20 percent, or about $300,000, commissioners said.

“I used to drive a gas truck for the co-op, and I drove over that bridge in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said the 68-year-old Franke. “And I thought it was a scary thing to cross in a truck then. It should have been replaced by previous commissioners, but it never seemed to happen. Hopefully, I will live long enough to drive across it.”

Long-range planning

In the Edinburgh area, commissioners are considering connecting Hartman Drive to Willoughby Drive. That would create a loop behind the Best Western Horizon Inn and the Columbus Yard Art lot that would allow local traffic easier access, allow for more economic development opportunities and relieve some congestion in the area.

Commissioners said they do not have money for that project until the County Road 600N project is completed. But they hope to complete the Edinburgh area work in about three years.

And they are worried about a county-owned bridge on Southern Crossing, between county roads 400S and 450S. East Fork White River is developing a bend that is threatening to bypass the bridge eventually and already is causing erosion problems.

“We have the river trying to cut a new channel and missing the bridge,” Kleinhenz said.

He said the commissioners have had a system in place for 30 years to replace and maintain bridges and normally replace three to five of them a year.

Looking even further ahead, commissioners are trying to plan for several other projects they expect will take 10 to 15 years to complete.

In southern Bartholomew County, commissioners want to investigate whether road improvements are needed to develop a southern counterpart to the 600N project — a single, straight shot for county residents to drive from one side of the county to the other. No roads have been identified as of yet for such a project, and planning is at initial stages.

“I think we always need a long-term plan,” Kleinhenz said. “We can’t do a project like that in two to three years. We are talking $10 million. We have to use our creative influence and federal funds to accomplish something like that.”

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