Last week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper included a story about the Grant County Board’s efforts to decide which of three building projects the county should pursue.
The first two seem easy calls, if spending millions of dollars can be considered an “easy call.” Grant County’s 110-year-old courthouse is irreplaceable in its present form. Apparently repairs done a decade ago resulted in a few unintended consequences, including building leaks and flaking plaster, in addition to the repairing materials now literally falling off the building.
The proposed $3.5 million Law Enforcement Center expansion seems like a wise investment too. The Law Enforcement Center is no one’s idea of a landmark, but renovating it is less expensive than building a new one. The cost of building two five-person dorms contrasts to the cost of housing 10 inmates outside Grant County — $180,000 per year, according to Sheriff Nate Dreckman.
(This is a point where someone might reasonably ask why we have to spend so much money on imprisoning people, which admittedly is a state issue and not a county issue. One could argue that state legislators have criminalized too many activities and imposed mandatory jail sentences for too many crimes. One could also argue, however, that there are people who are not in jail who should be — repeat drunk drivers, for instance, who appear to have to be physically separated from the ability to drive any vehicle.)
Dreckman told the Platteville Common Council earlier this year that a jail expansion, not a dispatch center expansion, is his priority. That is good news for Platteville. I still have yet to hear a reasonable rationale for why the Platteville dispatch center should be combined with Grant County’s and based in Lancaster, when Platteville is the largest city in Grant County by far, and the city spent good money to build a new police station with a dispatch center in it. If there are any future discussions about combining Grant County and Platteville dispatch, they should be centered on moving county dispatch to Platteville.
The courthouse and the jail are the easier calls. Interest rates are low for now, costs are projected to double in five years, and according to board chair Larry Wolf, the projects can be done without increasing property taxes.
The more difficult question has to do with the third proposed building project — where to put the county’s social services offices, currently located in the 1952-constructed Orchard Manor building. The three options range geographically from renovating the existing space south of Lancaster to a new facility on Lancaster’s south side to the never-used third floor of the Administration Building across the square from the courthouse. This is where an outside-Lancaster opinion might help supervisors make up their minds.
The point that seems to argue against remodeling the 1952 building is that after spending between $3.3 million and $5.5 million (depending apparently on the kind of air handling system chosen), the county will still have a 60-year-old building. The courthouse is an old building, but it’s an historic building, worth preserving. (The county didn’t keep the original Orchard Manor building when it built its replacement, and for good reason.)
The point that seems to argue against moving the agencies to the third floor of the Administration Building is the ability, or lack thereof, of employees to get to work and park, and clients to get to the agencies. I understand why downtown Lancaster businesses want to keep county offices downtown, but driving in downtown Lancaster can be, shall we say, an interesting experience, with loaded tractor–trailers changing lanes to make a nearly complete tour of the square to go west toward Bloomington or Cassville.
The nearly $3 million renovation cost does not include the county’s proposal to purchase land for a parking lot east of the square for county employees. (Which might mean my counterpart at the Grant County Herald Independent might get to spend time doing what I did a year ago — attend downtown parking meetings.) If you’re wondering at this point why the county board that signed off on building the Administration Building built a building with a nearly unusable additional floor with your tax dollars, well, you’re not the only one.
(Speaking of traffic flow, one not-really-unrelated additional issue is the traffic flow around the Orchard Manor complex. There have been numerous crashes over the years on the stretch of U.S. 61 between Wisconsin 81 and the south Wisconsin 129 intersection. There are plans to improve the 61/81 intersection, but those plans seem insufficient to the obvious, though more expensive, answer to widen 61 to four lanes between 81 and 129 — one northbound lane for traffic going to Lancaster, one northbound lane for traffic going to Platteville, one southbound lane for traffic going to Potosi and points south, and one southbound lane for traffic going to Platteville. Those plans also include putting a stop sign on northbound 61 at 81. Roundabout, anyone?)
One issue that apparently delayed the decision, but might help make the decision, is speculation over the past year or so that the state may want to force counties to combine some social service-related operations and regionalize those services. If that ends up happening, it seems to make more sense to have someone else, instead of the county, build new building space, since a regionalized social service agency may or may not have offices in Grant County.
Ultimately, it seems from 15 miles southeast of Lancaster that the County Board’s best choice is to have developer Dave Bainbridge construct his proposed building on Lancaster’s south side near the Unified Services building. The county board’s decision needs to be based on what’s best for Grant County, not just one of its cities.