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Washington County Courthouse renovation project may resume with administrator in charge

November 15th, 2013 9:14 am by Gary B. Gray

Washington County Courthouse renovation project may resume with administrator in charge

Nearly five months after renovations stopped on the courthouse’s second floor because the State Fire Marshal’s Office had not received construction plans from local architect Fred Ward, the project appears to be back on course. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City


A plan is now winding its way through the county’s procedural process that would restart construction of Washington County Courthouse renovations with no changes — same architect, subcontractors and end goals. 


What has changed is County Mayor Dan Eldridge no longer is considered the project’s overseer, and the County-Owned Property Committee basically has put at the forefront of construction a county employee considering a run for the county mayor’s seat next year.


Nearly five months after renovations stopped on the courthouse’s second floor because the State Fire Marshal’s Office had not received construction plans from local architect Fred Ward, the project appears to be back on course.


The committee stepped in and reorganized the process when a load of finger-pointing and posturing ensued regarding permits, time lines, costs and basic supervision. The roughly $250,000 second-floor renovation has been dormant since late June.


The committee brought in Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford, who has said he may contest Eldridge, as well as Willie Shrewsbury, the county’s purchasing agent, to help sort things out. 


A plan presented Wednesday by the County-Owned Property Committee to the Budget Committee resulted in an agreement to recommend to the full commission paying Hiram Rash of Kingsport’s GRC Construction $6,000 to oversee the project. Shrewsbury also would be tasked to stay in day-to-day contact with the supervisor and to keep an eye on orders and purchases.  


The Johnson City Press invited County-Owned Property Committee Chairwoman Phyllis Corso to be on hand Thursday at a time when a photographer and reporter would be looking at the site. She was there. So was Rutherford and Chris Pape, chief deputy zoning administrator.


“Several months back, the committee brought myself and Willie Shrewsbury in to answer questions and to help with the proposals,” said Rutherford, who is not a committee member. “It’s not unusual to se us working close with the County-Owned Property Committee.”


For now, courthouse renovation cost estimates are still hovering around $250,000. The courthouse was last renovated in 1986, but the work will provide the County Commission with new chambers. The county plans to save money by using use inmate labor, and some of the materials and labor will be outsourced to the state, meaning the county will go through the state for furnishings, carpet, blinds and other materials.


Construction began near the start of this year. But when the project got under way, state inspector Rick Talley determined during an on-site inspection that the county had not completed the plan review and approval process prior to beginning construction near the first of the year. 


Talley asked Eldridge for a “Voluntary Stop Work Order” until all issues were resolved, and Eldridge agreed.


Ward, who is the architect on the job, apparently was involved in a miscommunication with Shrewsbury that resulted in the state’s request. Eldridge said he already had halted construction before the order was given.


Commissioner Mark Ferguson was County-Owned Property Committee chairman at the time.


“The concern is, I think, that folks are starting to turn this committee into their errand boy,” Eldridge said. “The County-Owned Property Committee has been studying the renovations since June. The only thing they’ve come up with at this point is they’d like to see Hiram Rash supervise the project. During this time, no plans have changed. But the goal of both the committees and the supervisor is to see the project completed.”


Corso said state fire marshal OK’d the plan with one caveat: that the county use a licensed general contractor.


“We have the authority to be our own contractor, but we needed to have someone in place,” she said. “This has just been rife with miscommunication, but it is not the commission’s fault. The county mayor was in charge of this, and the buck stops there. And it really wasn’t fair — with all the mayor has going on, and to take this on.”


Corso said Rash will provide the committee with figures for both interior and exterior courthouse renovations, and that the costs will come with a guaranteed maximum cap. Once the plan is cleared by the County-Owned Property Committee, it will go to the Budget Committee for approval, and then on to the full commission.


“I believe this is the smartest way to go,” she said.


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