Better building for county “bid-ness”
by Mike Kroll
Space has been a perennial problem for Knox County government. There simply isn't sufficient room in the Courthouse to accommodate all county offices and, quite frankly, the judges would rather not share their beloved Courthouse with the non-judicial offices. The County has attempted to address the problem numerous time in the past and failed for various reasons including lack of funds and absence of vision. An answer just might be at hand depending on the results of an unusual property auction this week.
As part of Community School District 205's building realignment program Allen Park School, the building that formerly housed the district offices, will be sold at auction Thursday, September 7th. A minimum acceptable bid has been set at $225,000 for the 16,266 square foot building and the 6.36 acres of land it sits upon by the Board of Education (this is after an earlier unsuccessful attempt to sell the property for the $300,000 appraised value). At their August 23rd meeting the Knox County Board unanimously voted to bid on the parcel up to an undisclosed maximum price.
Presently only the County Clerk, Treasurer and Recorder's offices are located within the Courthouse. The majority of other Knox County administrative offices are now housed in the County Annex building on South Prairie Street. Despite the purchase of the former Leibowitz Building (now the County Annex) Knox County administrative offices are once cramped for space while at the same time as the Circuit Clerk's offices require additional space for record storage.
One possible solution would be to purchase a new County Administrative Building sufficiently large to accommodate all non-judicial county office in a single location while simultaneously returning all judicial offices to the Courthouse. That was exactly the thoughts of Knox County Clerk Scott Erickson and Treasurer Robin Davis when they learned that the school district had lowered their minimum price and planned to sell Allen Park at auction.
“Only someone totally out of touch with Knox County space issues could believe that this is part of some secret quest,” said Erickson. “Discussions about moving administrative offices out of the Courthouse have been publicly bandied about since before my election. The problem has always been one of a lack of realistic options. Noone has been happy with the way County administrative offices are now separated and the complexities of sharing the Courthouse with the courts has made the present situation less and less acceptable.”
Davis concurs and adds, “As elected officials our first priority has to be serving our residents and taxpayers in the best way possible, and the Courthouse isn't it. The [Courthouse] is an old building ill-suited to its current uses with insufficient parking, poor handicap accessibility and what are fast becoming incompatible uses. The growing security concerns of the Courts have made a building that is already inconvenient for most taxpayers to utilize even less so.”
“Our dream is to create a virtual one-stop shopping experience for residents doing business with Knox County,” Erickson added. “By moving to larger quarters on a single level we can simultaneously create both a better work environment for our staff and improve the service experience for our patrons.”
When the school district first announced plans to sell Allen Park School Davis and Erickson were interested but afraid of the $300,000 minimum price tag but when the minimum price was dropped $75,000 they became much more interested and began their research. “This wasn't a spur of the moment notion,” explained Erickson, “we were among the first interested parties to contact the School District and we already had a good idea of what our realistic space needs would be. Once we determined that there was sufficient space plus room for additional storage we decided to research the building itself.”
Knox County Board chair Jan Occhi liked the work done by Davis and Erickson and even the Judges were excited about the prospect but Occhi wasn't about to be burned by acting in haste, she had sadly been witness to that in prior County missteps. However, Occhi is also keenly aware of the County's financial limitations so hiring an outside architect or consultant was out of the question. “I contacted Galesburg City Manager Gary Goddard and asked for a favor,” explained Occhi. “He was more than happy to lend us use of their inspections staff to check out the condition of the school and of course [District 205 Director of Finance and Operations] Paul Woehlke provided a complete information packet to us that included key maintenance information, a history of building improvements and a record of utility usage and costs. That building is in excellent shape with many more years of useful life and the acres it sits on make offers the county versatility we have never before had.”
One criticism that has been leveled against the purchase concerns moving the county offices away from downtown Galesburg. “You know I just don't understand that one,” commented Occhi. “The only people that say that are those who don't understand that Knox County government serves all the citizens of this county-- not just those who live in Galesburg. Anyone who has tried to do administrative county business at either the Annex or the Courthouse knows that parking can be nearly impossible to find. Simply put, even for those who live in Galesburg the Allen Park property will probably be more accessible and easier to use than any available downtown alternative.”
If the county is the successful bidder Thursday it is likely that the purchase will be funded by something known as “Alternate bonds.” This type of bond could be sold to fund the purchase of the Allen Park property and structured such that all Knox County would need to pay for the first few years would be interest on the bond. This would allow the county time to sell the Leibowitz Building and some of the farmland adjacent to the Knox County Nursing Home to raise sufficient funds to repay the bonds. Alternate bonds are issued in lieu of revenue bonds and do not require referendum approval of the voters. The flexibility offered by such bonds is what makes this purchase possible by the County without adding substantial short term burden to the operational budget.
If Knox County buys the building all of the offices currently housed in the Leibowitz Building excepting the Alternate Public Defender's office would eventually be moved to Allen Park along with the Clerk, Treasurer and Recorder's offices. The Alternate Public Defender's office would move into the Courthouse joining the other judicial offices. It is anticipated that due to the condition of the Allen Park building only modest costs would be incurred in preparing it for the County's use and those expenses could also be spread out over time through use of Alternate bonds.
“There's almost nothing secretive about this exercise or the rationale behind it to anyone who follows County government closer than just what they read in the newspaper,” stated Occhi.