Here We Go Again

Time To Quit Piecemeal Planning And Wasting Our Money

With the impending decision to build the Knox County jail at the county ''annex'' site, the question of where to put the offices currently located there -- the Supervisor of Assessments and the Zoning Administrator -- must be raised again. Within the past ten years both offices were relocated from the courthouse to the small frame building at 157 S. Prairie, the former Simpson Powelson lumber yard property. It appears they will have to move again.

At the same time, while the County Board is feeling so darn modern and flexible, they must consider the possibility of getting a facility where many county offices can eventually relocate, leaving only the court-related offices in the courthouse. At the moment, the traffic court offices are smaller than they were before the latest courthouse renovation. No offices should be located in the courthouse basement because of poor air quality. Part of the Treasurer's office, the Public Defender and Court Services offices are all located there. There are also old county records being stored in conditions which are ruining them with dampness and cold. The county has literally run out of adequate storage space.

Along with the Assessor and Zoning Administrator, offices that could move out of the courthouse are the County Clerk, Treasurer, Veteran's Assistance and Recorder of Deeds. The facility could also house the County Administrator's office and County Board meeting rooms. Left in the courthouse would be all the court-related offices including the State's Attorney, the judges, Circuit Clerk (four separate, overcrowded offices and functions), Public Defender, Court Services, law library and courtrooms. The Regional Superintendent of Schools, should the office not be eliminated, could also be housed in such a building, but probably over current superintendent Bob Johnson's dead body. He's been moved about three times now.

With all this in mind, I have taken two tours of the old Harrington Home building at 91 W. Simmons St. -- a two-minute walk from the courthouse -- with a local realtor (Donna Scott from Century 21) and Bruce Weik, chairman of the County Board's planning committee. Later I returned with a local plumber (Ted Lambasio of Lambasio, Inc.) and an electrician (Joe Mangieri of Mangieri Electric) who both kindly agreed to check out the building. The building is owned by former County Board member Steve Cramer and has been for sale for some time now. Let me tell you what I've learned about this magnificent structure.

The City Assessor's office establishes the market price at $90,000. The building has four stories, including a finished basement with windows, totalling about 43,000 square feet of space. The low pressure boiler which provides steam heat is modern and safe and meets current standards except for a minor backflow feature. The asbestos has been removed from the pipes. The radiators have been winterized and protected and have thermostats so heat can be controlled in each area. Lambasio says this kind of heat is quick and effective.

Mangieri said the main electrical service is 400 amp and updated but the distribution panels throughout the facility are old and would need to be replaced. The wiring throughout most of the building would have to be redone, particularly for use by offices with computers and other office equipment.

Lambasio said installing central air conditioning would be expensive but the time to do it is while the building is being remodeled. He and Mangieri agreed the high ceilings would be conducive for electrical wiring and duct work needed for air conditioning which could be hidden by lowered ceilings. There are fire doors throughout the building and outside exits and fire escapes.

The plumbing doesn't meet ADA requirements and doorways would have to be widened to meet those requirements. An elevator would eventually have to be installed and a year ago Cramer was given a quote of about $75,000 for its installation. Basically, the windows are in pretty good shape. Cramer plans to do some patching of the roof and chimney but eventually the roof will have to be replaced.

Cramer has had the entire outside of the building tuckpointed and made improvements to the trim and fire escapes. He added a ramp for the physically challenged. He said the vacant land in the rear is divided into several properties, but as many as 33 parking spaces could be negotiated into the sale of the building and that additional property.

It was the opinion of Lambasio, Mangieri and myself that the old Harrington Home building is a solid structure and the expense to make it acceptable for county offices would be minor compared to building a new building of any kind, let alone one of this size and magnificence.

The occupants of the county annex now occupy about 4,100 square feet of space. One floor of the old Harrington Home is 10,800 square feet. It might be feasible that a portion of the first floor of this building could be made usable for these two offices while further necessary renovations are made to the rest of the building.

First, the County Board planning committee needs to figure out the total cost, which I would guess to be under $500,000 and how to finance the purchase and renovation of this building. Perhaps bonds could be sold, or an old-fashioned loan from a financial institution -- but it must be done. Knox County has wasted nearly $200,000 on that little frame ''annex'' building which will no doubt hit the dust in the coming months. The County pays over $10,000 a year in rent for the Regional Superintendent of Schools.

The Knox County Board should buy a building that will last and that serves its needs for years to come. This one may fill the bill.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 21, 2000

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