Jaws drop over building costs

Published February 14, 2007

INVERNESS - With several key projects on the docket, county commissioners faced a severe case of sticker shock Tuesday.

A county engineer estimated expanding portions of County Road 486 would cost at least $13-million per mile. And sheriff's officials said building a new Emergency Operations Center could cost nearly $20-million.

The high EOC price tag sparked tense debate among commissioners, who ultimately voted unanimously to wait for more concrete numbers before deciding the project's future.

Commissioners Vicki Phillips, Gary Bartell and Joyce Valentino balked at the price. They said sheriff's officials and consultants should find ways to cut costs. But commission Chairman Dennis Damato and Commissioner John Thrumston said moving forward now would save money in the long run.

"This is outrageous," Phillips said. "This is not fiscally responsible."

But other commissioners argued it was worth the cost.

"It's not a wish list item, none of it. It's not a nicety; it's a necessity," Damato said.

The main point of contention was the portion of the 39,500-square-foot building devoted to administrative office space - roughly one-third of the building, sheriff's officials said.

Commander Robert Blume said that approach would "kill two birds with one stone," providing necessary additional office space for the sheriff and also space for constitutional officers during catastrophic events.

Representatives of SchenkelShultz, the firm that is designing the project, said the difference in cost between hardening the entire building and hardening only the emergency operations part would be negligible. They estimated the project would cost $19.8-million if the entire building were hardened, and $19.7-million if crews hardened only part of the structure.

But several commissioners said eliminating the office space could result in significant savings.

"Until we take a big picture of all of our needs ... I just can't in good conscience support moving forward on the administration portion of the building," said Bartell, who repeatedly questioned how the project's potential cost had climbed from about $5-million at the outset to nearly $20-million.

Commissioners were equally taken aback when they discussed expanding CR 486 between the Black Diamond Service Road and Forest Ridge Boulevard.

But they voted unanimously to approve an alignment proposed by county staff for the project.

"It's a lot of money. It's never going to be cheaper to buy that land," Damato said. "I am amazed at what land sells for in the center part of the county with cows on it."

Engineering project manager Walt Eastmond estimates indicate expanding the road from two lanes to four would cost $13-million per mile between County Road 491 and Ottawa, and $14-million per mile between the Black Diamond Service Road and CR 491.

Thrumston described those figures as "staggering."

Grant funding could reduce the total cost, Eastmond said. And he said county staffers had discussed saving money by combining drainage retention areas with a proposed shopping center at the southeast corner of CR 486 and CR 491. Construction work between Ottawa and Forest Ridge is slated to start in May, Eastmond said, and should take about a year. Further expansion work will start after the county purchases right of way property.

Eastmond said the construction would be seamless.

"At $13-million per mile, you'd better be," Bartell said.

In other news at Tuesday's meeting:

-Pointing to a bright blue Florida Gators cap on his head, Damato said he was undergoing skin cancer treatment at Shands at the University of Florida at Gainesville. "I have been fighting skin cancer for quite a while," he said. He had major surgery in Gainesville on Jan. 30 and stayed in the hospital until Feb. 5. He said he would return there today for further treatment. "The prognosis is good and I feel fine," he said, thanking Citrus residents for their get-well wishes and thanking his wife and daughter for being the "secret weapons."

-During the meeting's public comment period, Alfred Podolski of Crystal River said he was representing 300 people who had signed a petition opposing the possible extension of the runway at the Crystal River Airport. He said more than 20 people were in the audience from that group, called CARE - Citizens Against Runway Extension.

"We feel that the airport is just too small," he said, noting concerns about wetlands impacts and emergency services access to nearby neighborhoods.

Crystal River Airport operator Tom Davis said the group had raised "valid concerns" that the county should work through at a later date.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.