By Derrick Knutson
Employees who walked into the Chisago County Government Center Aug. 1 noticed something was amiss, and it didn’t take long to ascertain the problem.
The floors in numerous departments were soaked.
“The cooling tower failed, which led to flooding of the judicial hallway, the law library and parts of the human services department that were just re-carpeted last year,” Chisago County Building Maintenance Supervisor Jon Thompson said.
Subsequently, an insurance claim around $40,000 was filed to cover the cost of the repairs.
County Administrator Bruce Messelt said the busted cooling tower is just one of the many problems with the government center.
The building was constructed in 1973, with an addition being built in 1989.
No major improvements have been made since the addition was completed.
In recent years, the County Board has taken a deferred maintenance stance when it comes to the building, choosing to put off upgrades or repairs unless they’re absolutely needed.
“Nothing has really been done unless it has broken,” Thompson said. “Honestly, the carpet is 22 years old, and we’ve got a 1973 boiler; the 1989 edition – that’s all original.”
Messelt said deferred maintenance is an understandable approach because the county is operating on a very lean budget, but upgrades to the building need to be done in the near future to avoid a “catastrophic failure.”
“We’re into five years of very, very tight budgets,” he said. “If you don’t at least budget for maintenance, you’re going backwards on your capital. That’s the concern. Not only have the major upgrades been deferred, but we’ve also been deferring needed maintenance.”
Perhaps the most pressing structural issue facing the Government Center is its roof.
“The roof is beyond its usable life here at this building,” Messelt said. “There are leaking problems around the building.”
Thompson said he hasn’t ironed out exactly how much a new roof would cost, but he estimated the price at over $30,000.
Finding funding through grants or other means other than tax increases – the County Board has made it clear it does not want to use levy dollars for building improvements – will likely be a challenge in upcoming years, but Messelt said one project has already been approved.
Through a partnership with the Lake Improvement District and the Soil and Water Conservation District, new parking lots and curbs will be constructed around the Government Center next year.
Messelt said the new lots – budgeted at a price of $50,000 – would improve drainage, leading to less runoff heading into North Center Lake.
No budget has been figured out to address security discrepancies at the Government Center, but Messelt said that’s something staff will be looking at, given recent events like the shooting of an attorney at the Cook County Courthouse last year.
New cameras, keycards for employees and a single point of entry for the public with a metal detector and a guard would be considered.
He noted the county could pursue grants for the upgrades, like one just recently made available through an effort by Sen. Al Franken.
“He put through a bill that gives us access to grants for security purposes, unfortunately because of what has happened across the country,” Messelt said.
Warning about reliance on insurance
Messelt stressed the county cannot rely upon its insurance policy to cover the cost of emergency fixes at county buildings.
He said if the county doesn’t start doing at least some routine maintenance and replacement of defunct infrastructure, its insurance company could refuse to pay for fixes, and it would have every right to do so.
“You can’t always rely on your insurance policies because if you don’t maintain your structure, insurance companies catch up with you,” he said. “That’s their job and you can’t fault them.”