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There is a break in the Bartholomew County Annex Building, and this time it’s not the plumbing.

Consensus is building to replace the structurally failing 86-year-old structure, a topic that has been considered off and on for 20 years.

But during the past two years, as the physical condition of the building near State and Mapleton streets has worsened, elected county officials have made the issue a high priority. But they have been at odds over how best to proceed.

The annex, originally part of East Columbus School at 1971 State St. and later renamed State Street School, is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and suffers from structural problems. It has multiple roof leaks, water penetrating through walls, collapsed sewage and plumbing, and old stairs that have been rounded by decades of wear and tear. The two-story building also lacks an elevator.

The annex houses the Purdue Extension office, the Bartholomew County Health Department’s nursing program and, for six more weeks, the Women, Infants and Children program. The state WIC program announced at year’s end that it would be moving from the annex because of the building’s poor condition. It is moving to the Doug Otto United Way Center on 13th Street.

Bartholomew County Commissioners have pushed for construction of a new facility. County Council members, however, have first wanted to explore renovation or retrofitting other existing buildings.

But commissioners and members of the County Council now both support the idea of seeking financial assistance from the Cummins Foundation to cover architectural fees for a new building, Commissioner Rick Flohr said.

If approved, the architectural grant would help the county get a solid financial plan in place, he said.

That initiative also is supported by new County Council President Ryan Lauer.

“This is a good step toward finding the best solution,” Lauer said. “An architect will be most valuable in determining what the building will look like, as well as cost projections.”

Flohr hopes a meeting with the Cummins Foundation can be scheduled within the next few weeks.

The Cummins Foundation has been a well-utilized asset in Columbus to pay for architectural fees for public buildings. It has helped fund more than 50 building projects in the past 50 years.

“It’s a very formal process that all starts with one meeting,” Cummins Foundation CEO Mark Levett said. “But how long it takes to get through it depends on how well-prepared applicants are.”

The county is expected to come prepared with a $14,000 study released in December by DLZ Indiana Inc.

The Indianapolis-based engineering and architectural firm is recommending a new, single-story building constructed on the same lot where the current structure stands.

Officials coming together

“The ice is thawing,” Flohr said. “I believe we’re getting there. We’re gonna make it happen.”

Most county council members have concluded that a new building is needed, commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said.

Lauer said, “I think the majority of the council understands that the cost of renovating the existing building is quite significant, compared to constructing a new building.”

In the council president’s opinion, consensus began to slowly emerge after DLZ made its presentation.

Nevertheless, some council members still were considering renovating an existing building after the presentation to serve as a supplemental office building for the county. Councilman Jorge Morales in December specifically mentioned the former Marsh Supermarket location at 2710 State St. as a possibility.

But Lauer said the cost of purchasing and renovating the now-vacant store, mixed with the high expense of vacating the current annex building, does not make the Marsh store the county’s best option.

Lauer said he wants to keep the former supermarket on the tax rolls, adding that the old Marsh location on the city’s far southeast side is “kind of out there.”

“The sticking point has been determining ‘what’ we are going to build,” Flohr said. “We need an architect to give us a solid plan and get everybody on the same page.”

During the past two years, the three-member board of commissioners has voiced support for an attractive design that could serve as a catalyst for future investment along the State Street corridor.

If a new 25,000-square-foot building is designed and built northwest of the current facility at 1971 State St., construction costs are expected to be $4.95 million, said Eric B. Ratts, principal architect for DLZ.

That price tag would not be lowered if the Cummins Foundation agrees to pay the architectural fees, but the grant could save an additional 25 to

35 percent in soft construction costs that DLZ said the county should anticipate.

Lauer prefers a building that would cost below $160 per square foot, or less than $4 million for a similar-sized building.

Other council members also have expressed a preference for a low-cost, low-maintenance, energy-efficient and functional building.

While there’s still debate concerning whether the new annex should have one or multiple floors, Lauer wants to see multiple options from an architect.

Funding plan

The county could pay for a new building without borrowing any money or creating any new additional tax, Kleinhenz said.

“We have identified $250,000 in economic development funds that we will set aside to use to pay back a loan from the general fund,” Kleinhenz said.

The commissioners plan to set aside the same amount for the same purpose next year. In addition, $30,000 will be set aside for professional services related to the annex building.

Potential in-house financial resources and their current balances include:

$555,000 loan through the county general fund ($5,467,303)

Rainy day reserve funds ($4,606,733)

County economic development funds ($29,500 already earmarked for the annex)

Telecommunications funds ($761,690)

However, Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman is strongly urging all county officials against using the general fund in the project, since that fund will provide the county’s operating capital from now through June. Additional funding for the second half of the year will not be known until that month, Hackman said.

While the establishment of a cumulative capital development fund is considered a possibility, most council members, as well as Kleinhenz, have strongly opposed any new tax. County officials will discuss funding possibilities with financial and tax consultant Dan Eggerman during an open session at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in the Bartholomew County Government Office building, 440 Third St.

While Kleinhenz described friction between the commissioners and the seven-member council over the annex issue as “cumbersome and, at times, trying,” he also partially blamed himself, saying he didn’t bring first-term council members up to speed at an earlier date.

“I think the council has just been extremely cautious and careful with taxpayers’ money,” Lauer said. “We are all working to find a solution.”

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