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What’s behind the idea of a building commission

By Maura Wery

On Monday, Riley County commissioners announced their intent to create a public building commission. The creation of such a commission raises several questions, among them why would the commission exist, what would it do and who would be impacted by it?

Discussion of the idea actually goes back almost 20 years, driven by what advocates see as one of the major advantages: A building commission can authorize the collection of more money for funding projects than is presently permissible without submitting the question to a public vote.

“We wouldn’t be limited in funding if we had to build,” commissioner Bob Boyd noted. State law limits counties to bonding out at most $300,000 of work on any building without obtaining voter approval, and Boyd said many projects are in excess of that

County officials are looking to the idea of a building commission with an eye toward fixing the county’s long-term space problems.

““We don’t want short term solutions,” Commissioner Boyd said. “We are looking for 50-year solutions.”

Commissioners aren’t completely sure what projects such a commission would tackle first. But late last year they reviewed a study concluding that the county would need 111,322 square feet of space over the next 20-year period, a bit less than double the present space inventory.

The study, commissioned in 2007, envisioned the purchase of the First Christian Church building adjacent to the county office building, with demolition of that building in order to construct a brand new facility on the cleared space. The entire project would cost the county about $3.2 million. Public Works director Leon Hobson said the new office building would be operational, efficient, contextual to the site, sufficient and sustainable. Those same plans also called for demolition of the current county office building in favor of an 85-stall parking site.

Commissioners plan on having a retreat with staff around Sept. 6 to discuss space and building needs. Beyond office space, they are also interested in looking at the courthouse, which Commissioner Dave Lewis said will need another two courtrooms in the next five to 10 years. They are also concerned with the cost of new safety requirements in that building. Also a concern is the sustainability of Plaza East, the building housing the commissioners’ offices. Commissioners say they won’t have a definitive list until after the retreat in September.

One of the biggest questions will be the impact on taxpayers by whatever projects such a board approves. Those projects would presumably be funded by the issuance of general obligation bonds, which are usually repaid through property tax levies.

Boyd said all the decisions the building commission would make would be transparent to the taxpayer because each one would be made in the public meeting. That, he said, would give the taxpayer the ability to reject or protest projected projects. If a project were approved by the board, Boyd said the fiscal impact “would be absorbed into the mill levy,” like any other bond issue.

The connection between projects and their funding via tax increases is also one reason why commissioners appear to be committed to limiting membership on the building commission to elected officials. In fact one possibility is that they simply appoint themselves as the public building commission. County counselor Clancy Holeman raised that possibility Monday. Commissioners have indicated they do not want non-elected people on the board, although state law permits that.

“Logically we could extend it to be made up of special interest groups and turn it loose and not have any control of it,” Boyd said. “No one is interested in that; we want it strictly to be the commission and to interested government groups.” He said the powers available to a building commission are “a lot of latitude … and if it isn’t set up right it could be a problem.”

The commission did note that even though they aren’t comfortable with the public sitting on the board, they are pushing for them to have a voice in the planning of it. The county has planned a public meeting to take place July 15 at 11 a.m. and Boyd hopes that they will be even more involved than that.

“Citizen interest in what we do is low,” Boyd said. “The fact that we have to have public meetings is encouraging to me. I’d like to see more public input in our government.”

Boyd said that the Commissions would have a public comment each time a project was suggested.

He doesn’t see many negatives to the idea of creating a commission.

“No one has responded with negative comments,” Boyd said. “That’s why I’m so insistent on getting people to talk to us. It seems like a no-brainer, and I don’t know why it hasn’t been done in the past.”

All three commissioners hope they’ll get feedback during a special session of the Riley County Commission on Monday at 11 a.m.

“Citizen interest in what we do is low,” Boyd said. “The fact that we have to have public meetings for each project is encouraging to me. I’d like to see more public input in our government.”

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