Friday, December 01, 2023

County office move to Asa Wood could cost $15 million

The Western News | November 21, 2023 7:00 AM

If Lincoln County is going to convert the former Asa Wood school property into offices for some county departments, the cost could begin at about $15 million.

That was a “conservative estimate” by Pioneer Development Company’s Andy Arnold. He is doing the feasibility study on the possible move of county offices.

Arnold made his online presentation during the Nov. 15 commission meeting. 

“We looked at four properties in Libby and Asa Wood checks all our boxes as being the most feasible location for new offices,” Arnold said. “It would take about $15 million, and that’s a conservative estimate, to convert the site.

“And I don’t think you can do that without a bond request and the need for a voter-approved mill levy,” Arnold said. “If you get lucky, you could get $1 million in grants.”

District 1 Commissioner Brent Teske was cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a mill levy to support the project.

"In the current economy I wouldn't think the chances of a mill levy passing would be very good, however as we proceed and narrow down costs and values of the county facilities that would be marketable, interest rates and the economy rebounding, and the number possibly be lower than the number projected in the feasibility study, we could see that a well campaigned bond levy effort would be successful," Teske said.

In terms of selling or leasing some of their current properties to help pay for new offices, Teske said, "No, we haven't gotten that far in the process yet, to determine market value or lease value of any of the facilities.

"Not having a better projection of the numbers just leaves too much for speculation," Teske said. "As we move through the process, we will better understand what type of money we need, then we can look at loans vs. bonding."

Grant money could come from state Community Development Block Grants or EPA Brownfields Multipurpose, Assessment and Cleanup grants.

Arnold provided figures and an estimate of the costs if the county selected the Asa Wood property.

“Lincoln County’s current debt limitation is about $112 million. The county, if it elects to do so, can issue bonds to fund the proposed facility expansion. However, bonding a capital improvement is typically funded with property tax generated by voter-approved mill levies,” Arnold wrote. “This type of mill levy currently funds Lincoln County’s public libraries, ambulance services, senior citizen services and search and rescue.”

Currently, one mill in the county yields $59,696. According to Arnold’s figures, to secure $15 million would require a total of 19.98 mills to pay for the project over a 20-year period.

According to his figures, owners of a $100,000 property would pay $26.97 annually in the 20 years. For a $200,000 property, it would be $53.94 per year, for $300,000, it would be $80.91 yearly, and for a $400,000 property, it would be $107.88 per year.

Arnold’s study also included looking at using the Flathead Valley Community College, land on the county’s Port Authority and a private, 15-acre, piece of land that sits just south of the Port Authority property.

“We don’t think the college would provide enough room and new construction at the other sites would cost the most,” Arnold said.

In his report to the commissioners, Arnold estimated new construction would be 25% more expensive per square foot.

“Redevelopment has the benefit of connecting into existing infrastructure, whereas new construction on raw land must extend infrastructure, utilities, sidewalks, lighting and other landscaping elements.”

According to figures provided in Arnold’s report, renovating the Asa Wood property would cost $15 million, but utilizing the Flathead Valley Community College property would cost $8.8 million.

“This report estimates that the community college facility would need to develop 20,000 square feet of new space to meet the county’s demand requirements,” Arnold wrote in his report. “Flathead Valley Community College is the least expensive option (if the college is willing to vacate the existing facility.)”

Using property at the Port Authority or the vacant land nearby would cost more than $19 million, according to Arnold’s report. His report also indicated that the cost per square foot is lower to develop Asa Wood than the college.

At a meeting in September, those who attended heard from some county department heads about the need for more space, parking and convenience.

“The biggest complaints, other than property taxes, we hear from residents is bouncing between offices and going up and down stairs,” Treasurer Sedaris Carlberg said.

As was heard at the meeting in September, county staff and elected officials prefer to keep any county facility in Libby’s downtown.

Arnold’s report indicated that, “It is well documented how government services can catalyze economic activity when their offices are in downtown areas.

“Government employees are more likely to eat and shop downtown when their offices in downtown areas. Businesses that work with these government services, from local attorneys to planners, developers, consultants, architects, surveyors, contractors and many others, tend to locate their offices close to government departments. Locating Lincoln County’s future government complex within downtown Libby can therefore act as an economic stimulus for the community.”

Arnold’s study includes population growth estimates by 2030 that would further necessitate an increase in county employees and a corresponding need for more office space.

“Right now, the county’s population was about 21,525 in 2022 and Lincoln County is one of the fastest growing counties in Montana. It could hit 25,000 by 2030,” Arnold said. “That kind of growth could demand more employees and the county would need 57,000 more square feet of space.”

Arnold projected the possible need for 23 to 45 new county employees if growth continues.

The county is accepting public comments about the proposal. They can be emailed to Written comments may be mailed to 512 California Ave., Libby, MT 59923.

The county would prefer to receive them by Wednesday, Nov. 29.