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County considers bonding for roads, capital projects

WORTHINGTON -- Buildings, bonding and roads and bridges generated much discussion during a nearly three-hour Nobles County Board work session Wednesday.

WORTHINGTON -- Buildings, bonding and roads and bridges generated much discussion during a nearly three-hour Nobles County Board work session Wednesday.

Though no official action could be taken, it appeared commissioners were split on some issues, including future ownership of the armory building the county purchased 16 months ago.

In recent months, the county has discussed the potential to bond for road and capital improvement projects to take advantage of low interest rates while saving on inflation that would likely occur if projects were delayed.

“We’ve been talking about types of bonding that would not affect the levy,” County Administrator Tom Johnson said. He asked Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder to compile a list of road projects that could be completed in 2017, if the county were to move forward with road improvement bonding.

“If we would bond for $9.6 million (the total estimated cost of 13 projects Schnieder identified), the state aid money would pay the principal portion back for the 10-year life of the bond,” Johnson said. If payments of $1 million were made per year on the bond, Johnson said the county would still have $1.4 million to put toward bridge projects.

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All of the projects include bituminous overlays to extend the life of existing paved state aid roads.

Schnieder said if the county chose not to bond for the projects, he would continue to advance state aid dollars to move projects up the list, but it would likely take four or five years to get all 13 of the projects completed.

“Nothing lasts forever and if you’re not rebuilding them, they’re going to fall apart on you,” Schnieder said. “The ones that were designed 50 to 60 years ago, those are the ones we are having the most problems with. It would be nice to have the money to do (more), but it’s not there.”

The county collects approximately $200,000 in revenues specifically for road and bridge improvements from the wheelage tax it implemented in 2014. Schnieder said the board could also consider implementing a local option sales tax that would be specific for transportation funding. Such a tax could generate up to $1.2 million for the county each year.

“We have 360 miles of pavement (in the county),” Schnieder said. “We should be doing $3 million in reconstruction every year -- that’s on top of what we’re doing right now.”

He said bonding for transportation projects is a good idea with interest rates on bonds at approximately 2 percent.

“It’s a win-win to get it done as quick as we can,” he said. “We can save the inflationary costs and have low interest rates now.”

Capital improvement bonding Commissioners also discussed bonding approximately $6 million for capital improvement projects. Johnson said a 20-year repayment plan would have the county paying interest only in 2017 and 2018 of about $50,000 per year, and then have annual payments of approximately $320,000 in 2019 until the bond is repaid.

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Among the high dollar items on the county’s list of capital improvement projects are $2 million to replace the roof on the Prairie Justice Center (PJC), $1.3 million for the garage addition at the PJC, $500,000 for the expansion of the Adrian shop, $500,000 for repairs at the PJC (chiller, windows, formica surfaces, exterior building repair, etc.), $300,000 for renovations to the Adrian branch library, $200,000 for a security booth at the PJC, and lesser amounts for foundation waterproofing and landscaping at the Nobles County Government Center, window improvements for security at the PJC, and a possible new access road to the PJC.

Johnson said if the county opts to bond for the projects, it has three years to get the funds spent.

Commissioner Matt Widboom asked if the board could come to an agreement on how much money to bond for and then, during a formal board meeting, discuss which projects will get funded.

Commissioner Marv Zylstra said he is cautious about how much the county should bond for, especially with the Worthington School District referendum and other issues facing county residents.

“I’d like to get this list in more priority order,” he said. “There are some essential things we have to do.”

“Some of these projects we’ve been talking about for four years,” contended Commissioner Don Linssen. “If we aren’t going to bond for it ... then I think we have to take it off the list.”

“There’s only so much tax burden that the folks can bear,” Zylstra replied.

Board chairman Gene Metz said $400,000 in wind energy production tax revenue was set aside to help repay the bond.

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“It’s levy-neutral,” he said. “It’s time to get some of these things done. They’re going to get more expensive.”

“Money doesn’t grow on trees and I certainly don’t want to be part of taxing someone out of their own house, but we still have to run a business,” Linssen said.

Meanwhile, Widboom said he’d rather see new money for roads than to bond for a new roof on the PJC -- especially when the county hasn’t paid off the bonds yet from the building’s construction.

“We just replaced another 140 feet (of the roof) because it was bad,” Johnson responded. “It’s just so poorly done that we are going to continue maintenance on it (until it is replaced).”

Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. said the county has to protect what it currently has. Chillers, the roof replacement, waterproofing the foundation and windows are all things that need attention, he said.

“To me, roads are the priority,” Widboom said. “It’s hard for me to vote for something that doesn’t include roads.”

Johnson will invite the county’s bond counsel to an upcoming board meeting to discuss the bonding issue further.

PJC garage The county board has discussed a potential addition to the garage at the PJC for more than four years, also drawing input from the Worthington City Council. A committee comprised of leaders from both the city council and county board has discussed at length the space needs and shared costs for the added space.

“This past year we looked at the different options and opportunities,” said Widboom, who served on the joint committee with the city. “The space was something that was cut years ago when the PJC was built. Now it’s going to cost more to put the space on that was excluded.”

An engineer’s drawing of a 12-stall garage addition was first presented to the board in February 2013, with the estimated cost at slightly more than $612,000. Earlier this year, the committee sought an updated estimate, along with a space needs study that provided conceptual plans for an addition, from Short Elliott Hendrickson (SEH) at a cost of $9,600. From that study, schematic floor plans of three options were created.

After some revisions, the committee chose Option 2 in a unanimous vote in March. The cost is now estimated at nearly $1.27 million. Combining the existing garage space with an addition, an PJC garage would ultimately provide 18 diagonal parking stalls and some storage space on the east and west ends of the building.

At this point, the city and county are talking about sharing in the cost of the addition 50-50. The city, however, isn’t able to begin making payments on an addition until February 2022, when the PJC lease revenue bond is repaid.

Zylstra asked if the cost should be divided based on population. Since Worthington is comprised of 60 percent of the county population, he said, perhaps it should pay 60 percent of the cost of the addition.

Johnson said he would ask the city when it plans to discuss and/or act on the garage addition.

Armory building After noting the Armory Business Center wasn’t on the list for direct funding or bonding money in 2017, Widboom raised the issue Wednesday, saying the building can’t be ignored. Little has been said about the armory, other than the county will continue to collect lease payments in the coming year.

The Nobles County Historical Society has yet to voice plans on how it might fund building renovations in advance of a possible move into the facility.

“Their decision kind of hinges on what we do here,” said Board Chairman Gene Metz.

Meanwhile, Johnson said he’s received a couple of phone calls from individuals interested in purchasing the building from the county. The county purchased the armory in May 2015 for $225,000.

Metz asked fellow commissioners about the potential of giving the Nobles County Historical Society the armory building and perhaps some funding to put toward improvements, but that was met with objection from Zylstra and Widboom.

“I think we retain ownership if we put money toward it,” Widboom said, while Zylstra noted, “Once you commit to the project, you’re going to be committed to future (funding). I’m not so sure, over time, that that thing won’t nickel-and-dime ya.”

Concerns about whether the historical society can afford to operate in the building were at the heart of the issue.

“I don’t want to set them up to fail,” said Linssen. “Then I’d rather sell it and be done with it.”

Zylstra and Demuth both brought up the fact that the building cannot be renovated for a new library in Worthington, which was the hope when the county purchased the building.

“I think we need to look at the facts,” Zylstra said. “I think we need to look at it from an economic standpoint. Don’t get me wrong, the historical and the arts are important and they do need a home, but I think it’s too valuable a location for historical. … The fact is we bought it with some ideas in mind -- it’s become very clear that they’re not going to work.”

Zylstra suggested the county work with the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. on a plan to develop the building, but Linssen said the county shouldn’t be in the development business.

“I’m questioning whether we need another building to maintain,” added Demuth. “I was all for it two years ago when it was a library (planned there). That wasn’t a fit. If the historical society can’t maintain it, I think we should move on.”

After much discussion, the board decided to invite the Nobles County Historical Society Board of Directors to an Oct. 26 work session to discuss NCHS’s plans.

Drainage inspection Also discussed Wednesday was creation of a position to lead the county through ditch inspections and redetermination of benefits. Though an exact title has yet to be developed, commissioners were presented with a two-page listing of potential responsibilities, as gleaned from job descriptions from six other counties.

Commissioners were asked to look through the list and provide comments on the duties by the Oct. 4 board meeting.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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