Government Asbestos

Plans to move the offices of La Crosse County’s administrative center have been in the works for some time. But the word plan implies something predictable and well-run. For La Crosse, the plan has been a boondoggle and a joke, the butt of which is the La Crosse County taxpayer. But you’ll have to read this whole piece to reach the punchline.

By way of background…

The current La Crosse County Administrative Center (the interior of which is pictured above, someone pointing out what we must assume is a nest of asbestos bees) was built in the 1960s. Like many buildings from that era, its walls and ceilings cover beams and pipes sprayed with asbestos, a carcinogen that’s no joke. The asbestos currently sits undisturbed and is a relatively benign problem in a building that’s seen recent renovations and boasts more modern amenities that most of the buildings at UW-La Crosse. Across the street is the county jail, and lying diagonally to the administrative center is a large parking lot covering a city block. Also located nearby is an office building owned by Associated Bank. Ok, got it?

I’ll make the implied explicit: I am a cynic when it comes to ostensibly unassailable estimates, costs, and projections presented by any political leadership. My chronic inability to believe the “facts” and “figures” proffered by County Board chairwoman Tara Johnson, former chairman Steve Doyle, county administrator Steve O’Malley, and others is informed by a basic distrust of those in power and my assumption, born too often from experience, that these people hold some level of disdain for the intelligence of the people they represent, and thus a disrespect for their rights as taxpayers.

Now back to the story.

The La Crosse Tribune reported that the supposedly intransigent asbestos has actually been removed in some areas of the building in this persuasion piece from November of 2013, discrediting the argument that an entirely new building was needed. But the basic proposition of renovation rather than razing was apparently not the focus of extended consideration by any official; instead that boring option was the target of a propaganda-driven effort to justify building anew. Eight-figure numbers are thrown around in this piece like an out-of-control tennis ball launcher, but the basic idea was that renovating the current building while removing all remaining asbestos would run about $23-24 million.

In that same story, that same firm, River Architects, estimated the cost of building a brand new building in the aforementioned parking lot at several million less than remodeling the otherwise-fine current building, for a total cost of $21.2 million. Shocker. That the preferred outcome of those in charge would just happen to cost out cheaper isn’t the question, the question is who in the county knew who at River Architects.

I remind you: I doubt these numbers’ core veracity not only out of the agony of a chronic cynicism, but because the liberal majority has never produced any competitive bids or even offered proof that such bids were solicited; they have refused to prove the numbers undergirding their arguments have not been rigged, or at least slanted to fit the purpose of a new building. Someone at the county made a call to River Architects, brought in a guy, and cranked out some numbers with sufficient specificity as to sound credible for presentation to the newspaper. That’s most likely what produced these figures – because to assume a half-asked job was done on behalf of using a patsy newspaper to report slanted figures is simply to err on the side of realism.

Shiny and new.

The decision to remodel or move wasn’t agonizing for the County Board, particularly because it’s controlled by a large spend-happy majority who no doubt would love to start new rather than remodel the current building. That’s just what liberals do, and the 6 or 8 conservatives – some of whom have themselves been some combination of wet-waffle and a patsy in supporting this scheme at one turn or the next – are powerless to stop them. So to build new is where they started.

The plan initially was to build an entirely new administrative center in the parking lot, which spanned (it’s now a hole full of cranes) the entire block across the street from both the current administrative center and the county jail, which itself was recently nearly doubled in size. Facing headwinds as to the need for a new building, the loss of parking, and the concurrent loss of City of La Crosse property tax base by not putting something private-sector on the parking lot, the next option was to buy and move into the Associated Bank building mentioned at the top of this piece.

As for the current county administrative center? It was sold for nearly the average cost of a single family home in Onalaska: $250,000. It will be redeveloped into student housing by a partnership of local developers with whom the county has gotten too cozy. To this cynic, the low price sounds a lot like back scratching that throws the interests of the taxpayer, yet again, under the bus.

In an undue haste, a deal was made that forced county leadership, and, less-wittingly, city leadership, into a very tight and financially risky timetable.

Banking on Plan B.

The county decided to buy the nearby Associated Bank office building for $4.6 million, remodel it, and move in – at a cost of about $19.4 million. The bank building promised to be modern, right-sized, and – most importantly – free of asbestos. It’s also near the current county campus of buildings including the jail and relatively shiny and sound Health and Human Services building.

A complex series of deals and digging has ensued in which the parking lot (formally called Lot C for the sake of convenience) is being redeveloped by local businessman Don Weber. A strict timeline that Weber’s organization is strictly holding to is necessary to make sure Associated Bank can move into new digs at that development site before the county moves into the bank’s old place. The parking lot will also host additional developments, from retail to office to residential.

I’m the last to argue that turning a weed-strewn old glob of pavement into a new development is anything but good for downtown La Crosse, but a very important question was kicked down the road by a listless county board: where will all those people park? That’s a huge parking lot that’s being eliminated. To put it briefly, the answer is still elusive. The new development will feature some underground parking to replace the surface lot it’s supplanting. Now, Weber’s organization may be forced to purchase another nearby property and build another parking ramp, potentially exposing the City of La Crosse (a unit of government we must distinguish from La Crosse County; the two have been at odds) to financial risk.

One thing’s clear thus far: were it not for the leadership of Weber (in other words, if the county was handling this by itself), the unnecessarily complex and tight timeline that hasty decisions by the county necessitated would have devolved into unmitigated failure.

Whoops…

Another option considered early was to expand the nearby county Health and Human Services Building and convert the building into a nexus of county operations. That option was quickly nixed in favor of buying the bank due to its size and smaller impact on the already-short parking situation.

As it happened, the bank was never big enough to meet the county’s needs, despite earlier reporting that the current asbestos-ridden hellhole was actually too big. Reported the Tribune early last year, “While the bank’s drive-through area would be enclosed and converted to offices, the approximately 50,000-square-foot building still doesn’t have enough space to completely meet the county’s needs.” So the HHS addition will be needed, anyway.

An old restaurant saying goes, “proper prior planning prevents pisspoor performance.” Perhaps if county admin Steve O’Malley, whose current contract essentially shovels a million dollars into his early retirement/yacht fund, bought into this crude phrase, homeowners in La Crosse County wouldn’t have tire tracks on their face.

So in an article entitled “Firm Recommends HHS Building Addition,” the paper reported that millions more would need to be spent to expand the HHS building, in part to support jobs that are currently at the whim of temporary federal grant money, risky money which is somehow portrayed by the paper as a financial windfall, like a desperate job-seeker who buys a new Tesla after getting a temp job at a concert venue.

Oh, and the firm cited by the article is a familiar one: River Architects.

Taxpayers pay the price.

The County Board recently voted to more than double the county’s debt load to more than $100 million to fund this interlocking series of hasty decisions and boondoggles that will continue until Don Weber and La Crosse mayor Tim Kabat figure out a way to solve the parking disaster the county has created.

Just a few weeks ago, the Tribune again pressed the plunger on the morphine syringe, reporting a relatively manageable impact on taxpayers from these projects “The $23 million in bonding for the three projects will raise the county tax rate by 6 cents in 2016 and 2017, then another 8 cents in 2018. It will add about $20 to the annual tax bill on a $100,000 home, officials said.” That sounds like a good deal!

I urge La Crosse taxpayers to adopt my suspicion of numbers proffered by officials interested in self-promotion and the retention of their own jobs. Figures presented don’t take into account recently relieved debt service on the first jail addition; it doesn’t account for the tremendous expenditures at the county landfill; it doesn’t account for the pressing need for road improvements, which is now spurring its own new tax, a wheel tax surcharge on vehicle registration. These and others were potential inflection points for tax rates – up or down? The current leadership chose the upward trajectory.

More importantly, in a region in which municipal, school, county, and technical school property taxes have continued to rise far faster than wage inflation, area districts are referendum-happy, and tens of millions disappear without notice into unquestioned projects like the Hillview Nursing Home revamp, the real lost opportunities are 1. Tax savings by adopting fiscal restraint and 2. The itinerant financial flexibility such a course opens for frivolities like filling potholes.

Rather than take regional growth for granted, La Crosse County needs to adopt a more fiscally responsible modus operandi. Nay – simply a more responsible one.

The punchline.

Brad Williams of WIZM recently reported that asbestos has been found in the bank building; this, the bank building whose purchase plunged La Crosse County taxpayers into a debt spiral because it would be the right size, and because it didn’t have the asbestos.

Asbestos is a bad thing. But when an incompetent local government sets out to fix it, it manages not to do so, make a huge mess that others must clean up, all the while spending tens of millions, doubling taxpayers’ debt load, debt which today’s first graders will still be paying when they’re looking for their first house in La Crescent.

La Crosse taxpayers: this is a joke, and it’s on you.

 

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.