The commissioners hired CBRE, Inc. for $145,000 last summer to do the study, as they endeavor to right-size county government and enhance customer service for the taxpayers they serve. The study will be unveiled during a presentation on Monday.
The Journal-News obtained a copy of the report that includes a number of “scenarios” the company ranked according to cost, level of disruption and benefit. The study doesn’t give cost estimates for any of the scenarios but has some basic cost-per-square-foot figures. The company conducted interviews and focus groups with other office holders, departments and agencies as part of the fact finding mission.
The biggest potential moves are building a new criminal justice complex, co-locating all of the social services agencies under Job and Family Services, emptying the Administration Building where the county auditor, recorder and other county offices are housed and consolidating the coroner’s business offices and morgue.
For safety reasons the report recommends building a new criminal justice complex and moving the seven general division Common Pleas courts, Domestic Relations Court, prosecutor, public defender, clerk of courts, adult probation and support services. It was the only scenario to receive “high” scores in all three categories.
County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser had a pretty strong reaction to that idea, “is somebody planning to hit the lottery here in Butler County in a big way.”
“The proposal is a do-over, a total do-over from what we have and earmarking it for the criminal justice system,” Gmoser said. “There certainly could be some consolidation but I think it would take decades to get something like that accomplished just like it took decades to get what we have, from the planning to the funding to construction. In a perfect world would that be nice, I’m all for local amusement parks and things like that too, but I live in a reality that may not accept that type of expenditure at this point in history.”
Commissioner Don Dixon said the concept is to get all of the courts and related offices in a secure location where people involved with the criminal justice system aren’t mingling with the general public. The only security in Government Services Center where these office are located is at the entrance to the courts on the second floor.
He said that project is likely “a 15-year-plan to have some complex like that, it’s not something that could be done in three or four years but we need to start planning for it.”
“I think it would make a lot of sense in the long-term to have that, where you could have all those services in a secured place and not in a public building,” Dixon said. “I think that was the thought behind that and it’s just a talking point at this time, but I think we ought to be looking to the future.”
Common Pleas Administrative Judge Keith Spaeth said, “I don’t know where that came from,” about the justice complex, “but the judges have not demanded or asked for it.”
He gave credit to the commissioners for studying the space issue, but the court is happy where they are.
“I think I can safely speak for the seven general division judges when we say we’re blessed with the space that we’re in, we find it to be secure and functional and it works very well,” Spaeth said. “We just continue to improve on it, we’ve been here 22 years roughly and we’ve invested quite a bit in this space as well. We haven’t seen anything about the criminal justice center, we’re not opposed to it, we just have to see what was being suggested. We don’t want to go from the pot to kettle.”
The county embarked on this project several years ago, but it stalled when former asset director Randy Quisenberry left. Back then they discussed relocating the auditor, recorder and treasurer under one roof because people often need all three of their services at once.
Treasurer Nancy Nix is housed in the Government Services Center, while the other two offices are in the Administrative Building a few blocks down on High Street. The development and water and sewer departments also housed in the annex.
The study recommends selling the Administrative Building — it is valued at $5.4 million on the auditor’s website — and moving the recorder to the first floor of the GSC and auditor to the 10th floor.
The biggest roadblock to that move has been Recorder Danny Crank needing weight bearing space to house all of his books. The commissioners solved that issue earlier this year by allocating $650,000 in federal pandemic relief to digitize records. Crank said he doesn’t mind moving.
“I have no problem, with the commissioners giving me this money I have no issue,” Crank said “Anything I can do to to help the county we’re willing to do. Where I’m located doesn’t mean anything to me, I think it’ll be a good move as far as the citizens go, one-stop-shop.”
County Auditor Roger Reynolds said he wishes his and Crank’s offices could be a little closer within the building.
“I understand the interest in the potential economic savings of consolidating the offices, that makes sense to me,” Reynolds said. “What would concern me is not being close to Danny’s office. The conveyance office and recorder’s office really are tied together even though they are different office holders. The ideal situation would be on the same floor.”
The problem with that is the 10th floor already houses the treasurer, IT and Gmoser’s civil division. The study suggests combining Gmoser’s entire office on the 11th floor.
“We’re not going to give up an inch,” Gmoser said. “I will not give up an inch, period. I don’t have any space on the 11th floor to move my civil division, I have some cubicles in hallways but I don’t have offices.”
As for the rest of the Administration Building inhabitants, the proposal put Development on the 6th floor, but it not clear where the Water & Sewer Department might relocate. It does mention the former Developmental Disabilities Board adult daycare center on Liberty Fairfield Road as a possible location. The DD Board turned the building over to the commissioners after the program was discontinued, it is vacant.
There are separate county buildings for the Board of Elections, Children Services, Developmental Disabilities, Care Facility, county engineer, health department, the Juvenile Justice System, the Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board, the morgue, OhioMeansJobs and the Probate and Area Courts. The sheriff’s office also has three jail facilities and the dispatch center.
The proposal also calls for the consolidation of Children Services, Children Support Enforcement, Job and Family Services and OhioMeansJobs. The agencies are currently housed in three different locations. The scenario in the study puts them all on the 9th floor of the GSC.
Dixon said he envisions eventually creating a campus where Children Services is on Fair Avenue.
JFS Executive Director Julie Gilbert said the consolidation would be beneficial for their clients.
“I think for our staff because there is overlap between some of our clients it would be beneficial for their ability to communicate with one another and build relationships internally to better serve our clients,” Gilbert said. “I also feel that in order to eliminate our consumers from having to go to different locations to get served would be a benefit.”
Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said she was very glad to see the social service consolidation idea because there has always been an issue having OhioMeansJobs located in Fairfield.
“We know that OhioMeansJobs identifies its biggest weakness being too far away from the people that need the services,” Carpenter said. “They actually say that’s they’re biggest weakness, they call it a barrier to users who need their services.”
The commissioners have earmarked a $15 million capital reserve fund to address this study. They have already voiced support for two of the projects recommended in the study, which is to consolidate Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix’s operations — she has offices in the GSC and leases space for the morgue. The sheriff also needs to expand dispatch services. They won’t have cost estimates for those until they hire an architect.
County Administrator Judi Boyko said the commissioners’ next task is to prioritize the rest of the recommendations.
“Over the next several weeks and months I’d like to have commissioners more specifically direct or authorize that those are projects they want to commence in 2023, those two,” Boyko said. “And what other priorities do they find from the CBRE study that they would want to start to review more specifically about the reality of them becoming a project?”