Lincoln County commissioners quietly decided during their budget retreat a few months ago to put off further action on major renovations to the old hospital and the Citizens Center, which have been proposed in order to create more space for county offices and courts.
The issue, nevertheless, drew ample attention during the recent election cycle, with some candidates calling for a go-slow approach, others expressing outright skepticism about whether such an expensive undertaking is needed and still others firmly defending the wisdom of proceeding with the project.
There’s enough doubt and confusion surrounding the issue that commissioners should take advantage of the extra time to get a second opinion, then work to ensure that the public has accurate information about what’s at stake.
The supposed urgency of moving courts into the Citizens Center and offices into the old hospital comes primarily from a space-needs study the county paid an outside firm to conduct a few years ago. That study predicted substantial growth in county personnel and needs for expanded workspace, which clearly would have justified measures to create more space.
But if that space really is needed, renovating the existing buildings still might not be the county’s best choice. Earlier discussions focused only on the price for work on the old hospital, not clearly articulting the scope and expense of construction also required to convert the Citizens Center. With that additional cost included in the equation, a measured approach will be in order, carefully weighing options. But that’s only if the space needs are as they have been advertised, which is far from certain.
The earlier space-needs study’s assessments were based on looking at growth trends through the first seven or eight years of this century. Changing economic fortunes have reversed those trends. While the county’s population may take off again once business conditions improve, no one can say with certainty when that improvement might take place, or whether any renewed population growth will follow the same patterns witnessed before the crash. Those differences could matter because different types of growth — retirees versus families with children, unemployed job seekers with no education versus highly educated recruits for new technical jobs, etc. — result in different governmental needs.
Policy trends have also shifted by choice, affecting the study’s continued validity. County leaders elected during the previous decade sometimes criticized those who came before for not allowing county services to grow along with its expanding populace. This group allowed significant expansion in the size of county’s, sheriff’s and school’s budgets. But most of those leaders are no longer in office today. Some of those who have followed are asking legitimate questions about whether we’ve grown local government too fast, in the wrong directions and without sufficient justification. As a result, we may see budgetary priorities shift. We could possibly even see some belt-tightening. The idea that policies could swing in the opposite direction wasn’t really considered in the space-needs study.
Given these changes, basing future policy decisions in this county on the old space-needs assessments would be like a cardiologist using a four-year-old EKG to tell a patient suddenly experiencing angina that he’s OK to keep eating double-cheeseburgers with extra salt.
County leaders don’t need to fork over more money for another space-needs study. They have the numbers they need in front of them. Take a hard look at the new statistics for county population trends and for personnel growth in each of the county’s major governmental divisions. Compare those to what was happening when space needs were previously assessed. Make some reasonable guesses about how the county space needs over the next 30 years have changed as a result. Then take a fresh look at which plan offers the best solution to meet those re-evaluated needs in the most efficient way for taxpayers, including all or some of the renovations or building some new facilities. Finally, provide a clear assessment of those findings to the public for open discussion with a goal of reaching a consensus, not simply playing political football.
It’s possible that this process will bring the county back to where we are today. But it should result in less bickering, less confusion and likely a better handle on keeping costs under control and wisely prioritizing the community’s needs.
We’ve got the time. Let’s make the most of it.