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The price we pay 

El Paso County administrator Jeff Greene flaps his arms and paces around his office, apparently irritated at having to explain why the county's ambitious facilities plan has cost 24 percent more than originally outlined two years ago.

The plan includes buying and renovating a high-tech building on Colorado Springs' northwest side and overhauling offices for various county officials, including himself as the county's top appointed official.

"It's not a Taj Mahal compared to what other counties are doing," Greene says in an interview last week. "I didn't have a window for almost 11 years. And commissioners' offices hadn't been renovated since 1972."

The plan is called the Strategic Moves Initiative, and it's the biggest facilities project in the county's history. In other words, bigger than the $40 million addition to the Criminal Justice Center in 2003 or the $45.5 million courthouse expansion in 2005.

The plan was unveiled on June 1, 2010, when Greene and budget director Nicola Sapp showed commissioners how they could address $150 million worth of facility needs for the next 25 years, spending just $49.5 million.

But today that tab stands at $61.7 million, not counting the interest the county will pay in the next 25 years on the $50.5 million it ended up borrowing.

"Don't you think that we needed to do something? I mean, seriously," Greene says. "Don't you think the Health Department needed a new facility? Don't you think that Human Services needed better offices? I mean, you put together a one-stop concept in which we could access services from the workforce center, human services, Health Department. They're all related."

But Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who took office in January 2011 and has been critical of the ambitious Strategic Moves project, says the county owes taxpayers an accounting of where spending stands and why.

"There was a certain expectation of what this was going to cost," Glenn says. "I want to find out, what's the overage? And get the detailed explanation. I think we owe it to the public."

A grandiose plan

The Strategic Moves Initiative began in 2011 after the county paid $22.1 million for the 305,248-square-foot Intel building and parking garage at 1675 Garden of the Gods Road, now called the Citizens Service Center.

The county then spent $13.8 million remodeling the building to house the Department of Human Services, Public Health, Pikes Peak Workforce Center, and offices for the treasurer, assessor, and clerk and recorder, according to spending records obtained by the Independent.

Next, the county spent nearly $1.1 million remodeling Centennial Hall, 200 S. Cascade Ave., for the county attorney, procurement, budget and finance, public information, commissioners and Greene, who moved from the County Office Building at 27 E. Vermijo Ave. earlier this year.

Now the county is embarking on a $5 million renovation of the County Office Building to house the Sheriff's Office. The contract was awarded last week to GE Johnson Construction for $4.87 million, adding to the $13.5 million already paid to GE Johnson, mostly for the Citizens Service Center remodel.

Up next: A $5-million remodel of the sheriff's training facility on East Las Vegas Street, creating much-needed new space for the coroner.

In addition, the county will spend $7.7 million making all of its buildings more energy-efficient, of which $2.3 million has been spent so far. Another $6.7 million will be spent to update and coordinate technology functions throughout county facilities, for which $5.1 million has already been spent.

Add in $215,000 to revamp a technical support building downtown, and the total comes to $61.6 million.

In June 2010, the presentation by Greene and Sapp specified $36 million for the Intel building and "repurposing of facilities," and another $13.5 million for energy efficiency work.

Greene says the 2010 presentation was merely an estimate based on project scope.

"It was [based on] estimates," he says, "because we had not completed official design. We had not gone to RFP. We had a general idea about what the building cost was going to be. We had a general idea of what some of the improvements were going to be."

Moreover, he adds, the IT work would have been needed anyway because the county's phones and other data systems were old and unreliable.

In time, he notes, the former DHS and health buildings, now vacant, will be sold, with the proceeds applied to the debt.

In February, commissioners approved a sale of the DHS building, 105 N. Spruce St., to the Jarosz Family Partnership, for $2.4 million. The partnership plans to remodel it as a 90- to 100-room hotel next year, but the closing was recently postponed when the buyer asked for a 60-day extension, Greene says. "We're in negotiations with the acquirer," he says, "and we're trying to work with them."

Dollar dance

How the county is paying for the project is rather complicated.

The bulk of the money, $50.5 million, came from the sale of lease-purchase securities and Build America Bonds, a tool introduced by the Reagan administration and revived by President Barack Obama. The bonds had an interest rate of 3.98 percent, which Commissioner Sallie Clark called "astounding" at the time.

The county also received $2 million under Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to help fund energy improvements, along with $1 million from the Road and Bridge Department.

Another $4.5 million came from various departments' "restricted funds" set aside for facilities. Those departments include Public Health, the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, DHS, the clerk and recorder, the sheriff and parks.

Lastly, $3.7 million came from "operational efficiencies" achieved from 2009 to 2011 through curtailed spending countywide, though no layoffs were required. Greene had promised commissioners in June 2010 the plan would cause "no reduction in current operations."

Amassing that cash took some doing, considering the county had just been through budget-slashing brought on by the recession, and it had been left with an empty till by Terry Harris, a former county commissioner who served as county administrator from 1995 to 2007.

"Terry Harris commented to me when he retired, he said, 'You know, I've spent all the money.' He did," Greene says.

"And yet, we had to go through this major process. We went through a point where I was really concerned where we would be able to meet payroll and be able to pay invoices to the county's creditors to a point where the county is in a much better position financially, and developing strategies and working with departments."

The county needs $4.2 million a year — to fund $1 million a year in operation and maintenance costs of the new and remodeled facilities and $3.2 million to repay the bond debt. To do that, the county cobbled together lease payments from the sheriff, the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, Public Health and DHS.

Those agencies either will pay the county more rent or are paying the county rent for the first time, such as the Workforce Center, which rented elsewhere prior to moving into the Citizens Service Center. DHS' rent is higher based on having more space, leading the county to collect more for that purpose from state and federal governments.

The county also will use $700,000 in utilities and maintenance savings because of the energy efficiencies project, Greene says.

Most commissioners seem satisfied with how the Strategic Moves Initiative has been handled, often citing SMI as their signature achievement. For example, during Chair Amy Lathen's "state of the region" address during a luncheon last December, she boasted about the project — not once, but twice.

zubeck@csindy.com

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