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By LeAnn R. Ralph
HUDSON— St. Croix County is considering an $87 million project for the government center that would include additions onto the north side and the south side as well as renovation of the existing building.
The addition to the south side would be intended to house the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department and the Hudson Police Department as well as other tenants, such as the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the public defender’s office.
There would be a shared public lobby with the sheriff’s department and the police department, said Dan Lawrence, an architect with Hagen, Christensen and McIlwain, an architectural firm out of Minneapolis, at the St. Croix County Board’s December 7 meeting.
The sheriff’s department and police department also would share a secure parking area, interview space and evidence storage along with a digital forensics lab, he said.
“It’s a way to be responsible with the building footprint by sharing spaces,” Lawrence said.
The addition on the north side would include a loading dock and a freight elevator, and the remainder of the existing building would be renovated to make better use of the space for all of the offices and the courts on the second floor he said.
Tim McIlwain of Hagen, Christensen and McIlwain, noted that the concept drawings that had been produced were not the end design, but rather, were a way to make sure that everything would fit on the site.
At this point, in a 100-mile foot race, St. Croix County is at mile five in terms of the government center project, he said.
Prior to the architect’s presentation, St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson and Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer spoke about the usefulness of sharing spaces with a police department to gain certain efficiencies and to eliminate duplication of effort.
The Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Eau Claire Police Department have a shared office.
Shared training rooms would be especially helpful, they said.
The sheriff department’s patrol staff cannot all fit in a training room now, Sheriff Knudson said.
A computer forensic lab is a necessity because so much of the evidence now is tied to cell phones, computers and other technology, he said.
One St. Croix County Board member said it was “a great idea” to combine the police department and the sheriff’s department but wanted to know if the City of Hudson would pay the full cost of adding the space.
Hudson would provide initial capital of $10 million toward the project and then would make an on-going lease payment to St. Croix County so that the city police department’s portion of the project would be “neutral” for county taxpayers, said Ken Witt, county administrator.
Judy Achterhof, county board supervisor from Emerald, said she had been on the tour of government center and knew that the additions were needed and that county departments needed more room but that she had “zero confidence” Hudson would follow through with payments.
The City of Hudson reneged on the joint library agreement. If the city backs out of paying for the government center after it is built, everyone else in the county will end up paying Hudson’s share, she said.
The county board has had zero knowledge and input into the plans for the government center up to this point, and “it’s like the other supervisors’ votes do not matter,” Achterhof said, adding that she has been on the county board for eight years and that “nothing has changed” about Hudson “holding up their end.”
Achterhof said she agreed with the benefits of the proposed project but that she did not believe the finances would work out.
The agreement with Hudson has not yet been written, Witt said.
St. Croix County’s corporation counsel will write an agreement that is enforceable, he said.
“I absolutely would kick them out if they don’t make their payments,” he said.
“What if they have no place to go?” Achterhof asked.
“Too bad,” Witt replied.
“I don’t see us doing that,” Achterhof said.
Achterhof also said she objected to the storage building and that the county could have saved money if the storage building had not been done.
The storage building is Phase 1 and was not sized with Hudson in mind, Witt said.
The storage building is for cold storage and would not have been bigger even if Hudson had a signed agreement with the county, he said.
The cold storage is for facilities maintenance, emergency vehicles and sheriff’s department storage.
The second floor of the government center is “unbelievably cramped” and if the county is allowed to have a fifth judge, then a fifth courtroom will be needed, “but I disagree with the way it’s being done,” Achterhof said.
The preliminary plans have been worked on for years, and the plans from the Government Center Building Subcommittee were all worked on in public meetings that were open to everyone, Witt said.
If county board members could not attend the meetings in person, they could watch the videos of the meetings posted online, he said.
“That’s if you have decent broadband service,” Achterhof replied.
Too much money
Rick Ottino, county board supervisor, said he supported the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department, but that an $87.6 million price tag was a lot of money.
“No one in my district knows the county is going to spend this kind of money,” he said.
Ottino represents the Town of Hudson.
St. Croix County spent $10 million to build in New Richmond for health and human services, he said.
The county could move other departments out of the government center to accommodate the sheriff’s department, the district attorney and a fifth judge at the government center, Ottino said.
“We could do it for less than $87 million,” he said.
These are concepts, and we are not talking money yet. The concept provides great opportunities to create efficiencies, said Carah Koch, county board supervisor.
Koch said she had “full confidence” that the City of Hudson would uphold its end of the agreement.
Koch represents the City of Hudson Wards 1 and 2 and 9 and 10.
A large price tag can be a scary number, Witt said, and $87 million “sounds huge.”
The Hudson school district completed a $100 million project five years ago for the middle school and the high school, he said.
The Hudson school district is one school district. St. Croix County represents 13 school districts, so the tax burden would be spread out over a much larger base, Witt said.
The $87 million project will increase the county tax rate by 40 cents per $1,000 of property value. The mill rate for the current budget is $3.11 per $1,000 of property value, and two years ago, the mill rate was $3.51, he said.
The government center would put the county mill rate back to two years ago, Witt said.
After that, the tax rate will continue to decrease, as it has decreased for the last nine years, he said, adding that the tax rate has decreased because of growth in the county.
It will not be as big an impact as $87 million sounds like, Witt said.
The current government center was built in 1993 when St. Croix County’s population was just over 50,000. Today, the county’s population is 93,000 and has almost doubled in size, Witt said.
St. Croix County has done a good job of stretching out the building use over the past 28 years when the building was projected to be adequate for 20 years, he said.
At some point, St. Croix County will have to add on to the government center, Witt said.
Interest rates are low now and are “rock bottom.” Interest rates have not been this low in 30 years, he said.
The low interest rates make it a cost-effective time for the taxpayers, Witt said.
Part of the recommendation is to build office space to bring employees back from New Richmond to where the services are needed, he said, noting that bringing employees back was another reason why it is time to complete the project.
People living in Hudson or the Town of Hudson “will get crushed” with property taxes, Ottino said.
The Hudson school district is proposing a $75 million elementary school project, and the taxes will be “a total devastating blow,” he said.
“We will start taxing people out of their homes,” Ottino said.
“I think there’s a way to do this without spending that kind of money,” he said.
Daniel Hansen, county board supervisor, said he had made a campaign promise not to support the project.
Hansen represents the City of New Richmond Wards 1, 2, 4, and 5.
If the project is going to be completed, it should be “done right,” he said.
“Diluting the project is probably a mistake,” Hansen said.
Shelly Tomtschik, county board supervisor, wanted to know how long the additions and renovations would be adequate.
The space would be designed on a 20-year model and includes “flex space” areas and tenant areas that would extend the life of the project to past 20 years, Witt said.
In addition to the City of Hudson leasing space in the government center, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the public defender’s office also has an interest in leasing space from St. Croix County.
The proposal for expanding and renovating the government center will be brought to the Administration Committee in January.
If the Administration Committee recommends the project, it will be brought to the St. Croix County Board for consideration in February.
If the St. Croix County Board approves the project, construction of the expansion would begin in 2023.
Remodeling of the existing government center would take place in 2024.
The expansion and renovation would be complete by the end of 2024 or early 2025.
For more information on the St. Croix County government center project, go the St. Croix County website and click on “minutes and agendas” at the bottom.
Find the link for the December meeting of the St. Croix County Board and click on the “video” link.
Links are provided in the agenda (that appears under the video) to additional information on the government center project.