Mower officials looking at future home of HHS
By Tim Ruzek
The Post-Bulletin, Austin MN
Options for Mower County HHS
• Remodel vacated space at the courthouse.
• Construct an energy-efficient building across from the courthouse.
• Remain in leased space at Oak Park Mall, renegotiate the contract.
Now is a great time to borrow money and get low construction prices, Mower County's coordinator Craig Oscarson says.
However, the nation's tough economy also makes it a difficult time for taxpayers, Oscarson told the Mower County Board on Tuesday.
Those are factors the board will consider in its upcoming discussions and decisions on choosing a permanent site for Mower County's health and human services departments, which are in leased space in Austin's Oak Park Mall.
When approving the construction of a criminal justice center — expected to open later this year — county board members said they intended to bring HHS offices back downtown, either into remodeled courthouse space or a new building. That has been a county board goal, not a promise, officials have said.
On Tuesday, the county board scheduled a meeting for 6 p.m. June 9 in the board room to hear and discuss information on the HHS location issue. At that meeting, Oscarson said, he will go through a consultant's report on HHS downtown, listing the positives and negatives with each option.
Another public hearing likely would be held later to get feedback.
County leaders need to look at what's going to be done with HHS and under what kind of timeline, Oscarson said.
Mower County is in its sixth year of leasing space at Oak Park Mall for HHS, with 10 years guaranteed overall there, Oscarson said.
Board members, Oscarson said, have three options for HHS — remodel vacated courthouse space once the justice center opens; construct an energy-efficient building in the Robbins block across from the courthouse; or renegotiate the county's lease at the mall.
As for the mall, Oscarson said there's also uncertainty with having space there, given that Oak Park is delinquent with county property taxes.
Board member Dick Lang called the future location of HHS a "big issue" that comes at a rough time and with the county already building a justice center.
"I want to look at a lot of things here," Lang said.
Tim Gabrielson, a board member, said the county doesn't know what it will have for employees with the ongoing discussions of a possible statewide redesign of human services. Something should be done, he added.
"I think we need to get out of where we're at as soon as possible," Gabrielson said.
County leaders previously have said that HHS employees could be downtown again as early as 2011.
Board chairman Ray Tucker earlier this year said he thought the county would remodel the courthouse because it would be the most cost-effective option.
County officials planned on discussing the HHS matter at the start of this year but delayed those talks because of the 5th District special election in February to replace Dave "Tolly" Tollefson, who died in December.
More than 20,000 square feet will be vacated in the courthouse once the justice center opens in fall. HHS needs about 20,000 square feet.
Oscarson has said constructing that same square footage in the Robbins block likely would cost about $1.5 million more than remodeling courthouse space.
City of Austin and county officials already have budgeted $1.6 million — each paying half — for remodeling the Law Enforcement Center.