County courthouse renovation plan bounced back to budget committee

Gary B. Gray • Feb 6, 2014 at 8:46 AM

Civility reigned at Wednesday’s County Owned Property Committee meeting; compromise didn’t stand a chance.

If the Washington County Courthouse’s second-floor renovations are completed, it will be by a competent contractor using licensed and insured professionals, and they will work off a very detailed set of plans and be adequately funded, if committee members have anything to say about it.

And they do.

Members unanimously voted to send back to the county’s Budget Committee the very same proposal rejected by the latter and sent back to the former because of its increased price tag. The property committee, working off a plan assembled by contractor Hiram Rash, agreed their plan to spend about $150,000 to complete the renovations was the right one.

There was discussion — plenty of it. But in the end, their reformulated plan, specifying needed materials and subcontractors was not changed. Not by one word or decimal point.

“We’ve got one chance to do this right,” said Phyllis Corso, committee chairwoman. “And I’m not willing to cut corners for a relatively small amount of money. Inmate labor is cheap, but it creates a liability. I have to ask each of you: what is the principal guiding us? We have to depend on our individual sense of responsibility.”

Inmate labor was used to help complete the courthouse’s third-floor renovations. They also were used on the second floor to a point.

Construction began in November 2012, but the job was temporarily shut down in June when it was found the State Fire Marshal’s Office had not received construction plans from local architect Fred Ward. Shrewsbury has said all along the original intent was to use a lot of inmate labor and Ward to guide the project.

Renovations on commission chambers and other improvements resumed a few days after the temporary shutdown with the state’s blessing. Nonetheless, then-COP Chairman Mark Ferguson stepped in at that time and demanded an accounting of how much had been spent, what materials were on hand, and what was needed to complete the project.

Shortly after this time, Corso took the head of the table on the COP committee. With Zoning Administrator and county mayor candidate Mike Rutherford’s help, the committee started its quest to gather information on what had been spent, how much money was left, what materials had been purchased and what still needed to be bought.

A plan put together last year revealed a total estimated cost of $220,000, but the additional costs would bring the tally to ... nobody really knows, and that’s why the proposal — in the form of a resolution — is headed back to the Budget Committee.As things stand, about $38,000 was left over for renovations when the job was shut down. But that money was folded back into the county’s general fund on July 1 when the new fiscal year began. That means there is no money budgeted to complete the project. Not even for a box of nails.

“My goal was not to change anything, though there were several deficiencies,” Rash said. “I could not identify the specific scope of work for each contractor.”

Corso, and other COP committee members, remain a bit miffed at County Mayor Dan Eldridge for not communicating clearly to them. She said Wednesday she wanted the resolution sent back to the Budget Committee and on to the full commission, but she “did not want to see the resolution come back.”

“This committee has been trying to get an accounting on the project,” she said about the costs. “We have asked the mayor for it. He has not complied. We don’t have a complete picture of it. There’s been a lack of communication and information. The county does not have a policy manual to handle this kind of thing.”

Committee member Doyle Cloyd blasted Eldridge last week after a County Commission meeting for lying about asking committee members to attend the Budget Committee meeting when the proposal was rejected and sent back. In fact, a sheriff’s deputy restrained Cloyd at one point.

“I don’t think it’s the wish of this committee to spend any more money than we have to,” he said quietly Wednesday. “I don’t see any way in the world we can finish this job with the money we have left.”

By the way, Corso asked Eldridge, who was in the middle of a fairly hostile situation after the commission meeting, if he would come to the property committee meeting. He only managed part of a sentence, which included, “If you’re civil.”

He chose not to attend. And while the meeting was a serious affair, it was fairly relaxed.

Though Eldridge was not there, three Budget Committee members, Joe Grandy, Mitch Meredith and Pete Speropulos did attend, and they did defend their decision to reject the resolution, mainly on grounds that the use of inmate labor would save money.

They also invited members to the Budget Committee’s next meeting on Feb. 13.

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