By Stuart R. Wahlin
Dec. 22, the same day Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) announced the county had closed on the federal courthouse at 211 S. Church St., for $2 million, the county board voted to acquire the four-story City Plaza building at 555 N. Church St., for $775,000.
Pending approval from bankrupt Commercial Mortgage & Finance’s creditors, the sale is aimed at consolidating three locations leased by the Winnebago County Health Department into one facility.
The county originally planned to purchase the building for $860,000, but Christiansen indicated a last-minute appraisal resulted in the lower offer.
“Taxpayers can rest assured that that’s market value,” Christiansen asserted.
Several fellow Republicans, however, didn’t view the purchase as a bargain for taxpayers.
Despite the lower price and being a prime time to buy property, Frank Gambino (R-14), a Realtor and developer by trade, had reservations.
“We’re gonna increase our commitment to that [$775,000 purchase price] to close to $4 million,” he said, referring to an estimated $3.3 million in renovations. “That building probably will not be worth any more than about a million-and-a-half, so we will be over-improving a building, no matter what we pay for it.”
The county, as landlord, plans to honor existing leases in City Plaza as a means to make bond payments related to renovation of the facility, according to Mike Bacon, public health administrator.
Bacon indicated the purchase price will come from Health Department funds by way of grants, fees and property tax support in the percentages of 60, 20 and 20, respectively.
Kyle Logan (R-3), the most vocal critic of the purchase, argued: “We’re going to be expanding social services and expanding government at a time when we’re seeing all levels of government continue to still expand government—spending particularly. I’m having trouble understanding why, at a time when the federal government is going to be issuing a mandate that everybody has to have health insurance, local government has to continue to provide social services in the same arena.
“It just doesn’t add up, to me,” he continued. “I have trouble with, when three locations are consolidating—in roundabout numbers, 20,000 square feet—and we’re buying a building that has almost roughly three times as much as that, it just seems that we’re buying more building than what we need. We’re entering into the private market, which I have philosophical differences with. There’s a multitude of reasons that we shouldn’t be doing this.”
Bacon responded that the consolidation of services at the location is the least expensive of the options the department has explored in the last several years.
“This simply makes more sense, particularly in these difficult economic times, not only for our clients, but in terms of our efficiency of operation,” Bacon said. “The integration of services and efficiency provided in this, I think, will more than make up for the differences we’re talking about here. This is all about improved service.”
Although Logan concurred consolidation makes sense to become more efficient and save taxpayer dollars, he argued he doesn’t believe the purchase and renovation of City Plaza is the most cost-effective way to achieve that end, because the building has far more space than needed.
Instead, Logan suggested finding a more suitably-sized building willing to offer a long-term lease, whereby the City Plaza would remain in the private market and on the tax rolls.
“That would cost the county a ton less than buying and putting all the improvements into it, so there’s more to it than just gaining efficiencies,” Logan added. “We’re actually going to be expanding into more space than there currently is, and there’s no doubt about it that you’re going to fill it, which is going to cost the taxpayers more money.”
Angie Goral (D-7), the county board’s representative on the Board of Health, cited the difficult economy as all the more reason people are depending on services provided by the Health Department.
“There’s a lot more to this health department than you can ever imagine,” she asserted, urging fellow board members to tour its facilities.
Paul Gorski (D-5) facetiously interjected: “Angie, aren’t there any prisons? Aren’t there any workhouses? Don’t I pay money to these facilities already?”
Doug Aurand (D-3), who also serves as Harlem Township supervisor, echoed Goral’s sentiments, referring to the Health Department’s services as a “blessing” for the township’s clients.
Pearl Hawks (D-6) referenced the working poor, many of whom do not have insurance, noting sick time absorbed by employers is a very real cost that should be considered, too.
Gambino, however, urged board members to not allow the decision to be influenced by emotional rhetoric.
“We’re not talking about eliminating services. We’re not talking about replacing services,” Gambino said. “We’re talking about a financial decision here that’s gonna impact the taxpayers of Winnebago County.
“And I understand that’s a great plea that the Health Department does this, and the Health Department does that. They will continue to do so, with or without this building,” he added. “We aren’t going to take away anything from them by saying ‘no’ to this, or saying ‘yes’ to this.”
Following up on Gambino’s comments, Steve Schultz (R-2) argued: “The potential of overpaying for this building is a different issue than the value and importance of the Health Department and the services it provides. So, I think it’s wise to separate those issues. And I believe, at this stage, we’re still overpaying for that building.”
Logan concurred: “It seems to me that where we’re getting lost is that everybody is trying to make this an emotional issue. But the problem is that there’s an emotional issue on the other side, too, and every time we spend a tax dollar, that’s a dollar you have to take from somebody else who went out and worked really, really hard to earn that for his family. And now, government’s taking that dollar, and we’re gonna go give it over here for this person, so they can spend it for their family.
“When are we going to stop?” Logan wondered. “You come up with services that are gonna help everybody and help everything, but you’re gonna take away all the money from everybody else, and then they’re gonna need the services as well. Government can’t be everything to anybody.”
Logan argued the Health Department would find a way to use all of the extra space at its disposal in the new facility, which would result in higher taxes.
“And yes, they’re going to get grants, but here’s a news flash—grants come from taxpayer dollars as well, and that’s additional money that had to be taken from families right now,” he concluded. “And if you’ve seen the economy, there’s not anybody right now who can afford to have additional tax dollars taken away from them. There comes a point where taking money from somebody to give to somebody else just becomes wrong.”
Goral, however, staunchly defended the purchase, noting the building’s central location has a pivotal role in delivering better service for the county’s neediest families.
“Any building we get, we would have to go in and have to build out for the services that we’re going to need,” she noted.
Board newcomer Carolyn Gardner (D-9) was also not swayed by arguments of Republicans.
“As I watch our community and everything, we have a lot of people that really need [the Health Department’s] help and their services and stuff, and they can make it easier for ’em,” she said. “Any one of us could be crossing that line and fall into need.”
Gardner asserted those are the people she represents, and that the new facility would make health care less difficult for them, adding, “I don’t think we should mix money with the lives of people.”
After approximately 25 minutes of debate, Gambino, Logan, Wendy Owano (R-5), Schultz and John F. Sweeney (R-14) cast the only “no” votes.
The board subsequently agreed to up to $4.5 million in general obligation debt certificates related to the new venture.
From the Dec. 30, 2009 – Jan. 5, 2010 issue