2011-03-10 / Front Page

Constituents Blast County For Spending, Old Jail Plans

Commissioners reveal debt of $4.577 million
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz
STAFF WRITER

From the poor management of ongoing construction and the destruction of historical property to overspending, the accusations against the Fulton County commissioners were vast and varied last Thursday.

Commissioners Bonnie Mellott Keefer, David Hoover II and Craig Cutchall started off their first town meeting of 2011 with an overview of matters related to roadways, bridges and Community Development Block Grant funding. However, it wasn’t long before the nearly 50 residents in attendance took the meeting at the Thompson Township municipal building into their own hands with a series of questions delving into the county’s past, current and proposed practices.

Former county treasurer David Wright initiated what would turn out to be a long line of commentary and allegations on March 3, with questions about why the commissioners opted to pay out approximately $130,000 in solicitor fees during recent negotiations with county probation officers.

Commissioner Keefer pointed out the county is not “in charge” of the probation department. As a result of falling under the jurisdiction of the Fulton County Court of Common Pleas, the decision to hire specialized counsel from Harrisburg fell upon the shoulders of the president judge. Keefer further noted the judge had the capability of issuing a court order in the matter but did not.

Unable to elaborate further, Keefer said they will be meeting with the judge to discuss the union contract that is already coming to an end.

“Unfortunately, he (the judge) does really control us,” chimed in Commissioner Cutchall.

“If you upset a couple judges, they can tear our budget apart and put everybody in jail,” concluded Commissioner Hoover. “They could go lenient on us too. They know our situation, but a judge can also be against you.”

Under questioning by Licking Creek Township resident Jerry Gregory and Larry Ott, deputy sheriff, the commissioners and Chief Clerk Dan Swain reported county employees are required to put in a minimum contribution of 8 percent into the retirement fund. In comparison, the county placed $250,000 into the fund in 2010. Three hundred thousand dollars has been budgeted for this year.

The crowd pitched cost-saving measures primarily surrounding employee reduction, and former commissioner Bob Garlock pointed out since the 1850s the county had never had a financial advisor or manager. The commissioners responded by lauding the efforts of business manager Stanton and gave attendees an overview of his background, which included stints at Mellon Bank and Wilson College.

“We now have our finger on the pulse of county finances,” said Keefer.

Swain, the county’s chief clerk, explained that the business manager also wears the hats of head of maintenance and human resources manager. For the three positions, Stanton’s salary was calculated in the midto upper $70,000 range.

“He’s paid for himself,” Swain said.

Exhibiting before-and-after photos of some of the county’s facilities under renovation, the conversation quickly turned to what Joy Dasher, wife of commissioner candidate Irvin Dasher, referred to as “the people’s jail.”

Hoover confirmed the facility is not deemed a historic building, but it is located within the historic district. The section of the facility that housed a number of jail cells has already been demolished, and additional renovations ranging from ductwork to a new front porch have been completed as well. It is unknown how much the county already spent prior to announcing their latest plans to demolish and rebuild the original sheriff’s office. A credit list of unfinished work is slated to be given to the commissioners by contractors.

Hoover made reference to the commissioners’ original plans tallying $7 million that called for the construction of a “justice building” and the removal of the sheriff’s office. Due to the initial outcry from the public regarding the destruction of historic property, the plans were altered to “save the jail,” recalled Hoover.

“Our minimal plans were to put a roof on the sheriff’s office; put geothermal in it; paint a little bit; the porch; and do a little bit on the outside. That’s it – no wiring, nothing else,” said Hoover. “We started on an assumption. We started taking things out of the jail. We put the geothermal in. People told us they thought it wouldn’t withstand all of this fixing up.”

“We pulled the stucco off in many places, and the brick comes right off. The stucco is hooked right onto that. All of these things are happening. There’s mold in there. The rafters are rotten. Instead of putting all of the money into it, $200,000 or $300,000, we could probably get a new building for $500,000,” added Hoover, who noted that costs as well as plans are only in the preliminary stages. The tentative plans now call for a new brick building matching the existing facility and hooking onto the secondstory, overhead walkway.

Hoover fielded the brunt of the questions on construction and renovation with fingers being pointed regarding the upkeep of buildings and if the commissioners were aware of the ongoing issues at the sheriff’s office. Keefer took time to remind those in attendance that they could as a group agree to disagree and still be polite with one another.

Keefer reminded those in attendance, unlike a private residence or business, a county is often weighed and slowed down by bureaucracy as they are required to hire both an engineer and architects. Those contracted by the commissioners in connection with this threephase project are Center Point and Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates (CRA).

A clerk of the works or general project manager was not brought on board in hopes of saving the county additional money. As a result, those overseeing the project on behalf of the county are business manager Tim Stanton and county project developer Karen Hann.

With breakdowns in communications evident and CRA and the general contractor unable to get along, it is likely, Hoover said, the county will probably be going after some money through various suits.

A handout prepared by the business manager and distributed to the crowd revealed the county has three outstanding loan notes. Series A of 2007 was obtained to purchase the Shearer and Bivens properties, which were leveled to make room for additional county property. The original amount of the note totaled $250,000 with a current balance and interest rate of $200,000 and 1.65 percent.

Series A of 2009 covers the county’s construction loan, which will reach final maturity in 2031. The original amount of the loan was recorded at $3.8 million to be drawn down over the period of the construction. The current balance on the outstanding note is $3,507,388.

In addition, Series B of 2009 in the amount of $412,000 was issued to refinance a 2003 note for the Services for Children building. Final maturity will be reached in 2028, and the current balance remaining on the note is $389,053.

Meanwhile, a fourth loan note tallying $215,000 has been approved but hasn’t been drawn down yet. The purpose of the note is to assist with the proposed JLG turning lane project on Route 16.

Keefer quickly pointed out the county’s current debt balance has been calculated at $4,577,000. Based on the county’s finances, the county’s allowable debt limit would be approximately $26,500,000. Therefore, Keefer said, the county’s current debt is well under the allowable limit.

Additional debt is being considered for this year through Series A of 2011, the commissioners reported. The funding is earmarked for the third and final phase of the construction project. Of the additional, proposed debt for 2011, $580,000 out of the overall borrowed amount of $870,000 will be used for the sheriff’s office. The cost is divided between construction; design, permitting, inspection, technology and security; and demolition of the existing structure.

Armed with “a pile” of petitions, Deputy Sheriff Ott read aloud from the paperwork devised to save the “sister building” of the Civil War era courthouse. “It (the jail) is just as historic as the courthouse, and you wouldn’t think to tear the courthouse down,” Ott stated. “It belongs to all the people of Fulton County, not just the three commissioners.”

With no one in attendance willing to put a price on preserving the sheriff’s office, Wright and local businessman Ron Richards asked the commissioners to at the least tarp the exposed roof of the building. Going back to prior references on the power of Common Pleas judges, Wright further stated maybe a court injunction could be obtained to stop the sheriff’s office from being torn down. Suggestions were also made to have the future of the sheriff’s office decided by a referendum question on the May election ballot.

Until their next town meeting is held on April 7 at 7 p.m. at the Green Hill Sewing Club, the commissioners publicly agreed to cover the roof at the sheriff’s office to prevent further weathering. An investigation into the issue of a referendum question will also be held in order for an answer to be shared with constituents next month.

Since the meeting the commissioners have learned the matter cannot be placed on the spring ballot.

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