The Head Start building remodel is back on track — and not a moment too soon.
Curry County commissioners agreed on Wednesday to pursue it despite its years-long history of delays and yo-yoing on the part of the board regarding the fate of the building in Brookings — and thus the Head Start program altogether.
The federal government gave the county until the end of April to proceed or return grant money, said County Attorney John Huttl.
Huttl originally recommended the board abandon the project — until he heard about the financial status of Oregon Coast Alliance (ORCA), which hosts the Head Start program in Brookings.
This project has been going on for years and languished,” he said. “I’m concerned about the track record. I know we have new players involved, but it’s been really difficult to get to the point we’re talking about today. In theory, this is the easier part of the overall project. We’re just planning it, and it’s been hard. I want the board to be fully aware, there have been a lot of difficulties, and I don’t have any reason to think there won’t be any more in the future.”
Huttl was initially concerned because the nonprofit operates primarily using grant money, and grant money is often dedicated to one project, leaving very little, if any, discretionary funds for others.
The county, which holds the grant, ORCA, and Southwest Oregon Community College, which owns the building in Brookings, all agree on the appraisal of $370,000. The college, Lehman said, has indicated it might be able to contribute another $20,000 toward the cost. That leaves a shortfall of about $46,000 to meet the requirements of the $1.6 million federal grant.
“We have the financial wherewithal to hold our end of the bargain on this transaction,” said ORCA Director Mike Lehman. “We have about $15 million worth of assets secured, with about $3 million worth of loans on those. We have a lot of property we own.”
He said the nonprofit currently has about $250,000 in unrestricted funds.
“We can use it to backfill anything we need to do on the Head Start project,” Lehman continued. “I have no concerns we can handle our obligations. I’m not worried about that. I am committed to making this work. We will make this work.”
His comments prompted applause from audience members.
Huttl retracted his recommendation.
“We didn’t have the financials; they were impressive,” he said. “I was not aware of the level of resources ORCA had; it’s more than I thought. I had no idea. Knowing that now, I’m less inclined to recommend terminating the project.”
Lehma even told Commissioner Tom Huxley, who voted against pursuing the project, that if he fails in his endeavor, Huxley can publicly call him on it.
“If this turns into a nightmare, I will go wherever you want and you can publicly point out that I messed this up,” Lehman said.
“That’s no consolation to the taxpayers,” Huxley responded. “None whatsoever.”
Huxley offered a motion to return the grant, but it wasn’t seconded, and thus, failed.
“There is a long-standing history that there is no one in-house with any proven capability of handling any remote project like this,” he said. “I don’t see it changing.”
The project has been waylaid for years, and SWOCC is “really in sell mode,” Lehman said, adding that ORCA will not be allowed to offer the Head Start program in that location if the grant is terminated.
Originally, the City of Brookings agreed to sponsor the grant because a nonprofit cannot receive such block grants. But the city backed out after officials realized how much work might be involved and that it wouldn’t benefit — and put itself at substantial financial risk — by doing so.
The county then agreed to sponsor the grant, the architect was hired and began doing work that triggered other requirements — better drainage and more parking — not approved in the original contract.
Architectural work began two years ago, but the architect was fired and nothing has happened in the interim. Work was supposed to start last September and done no later than June 2018. The architect was paid $93,000; he claims the county owes him another $40,000, but that issue might have to be resolved in court.
Due to staff changes in all agencies involved, including county commissioner boards, no one followed up on the project in the ensuing years. Head Start operations, however, continued there.
Lehman said he is both more and less fearful than he was last year, even though the lease on the building expires in June.
“There is a bit more pressure on me about making it happen,” he said. “I’m more comfortable now saying this thing will fly.
“But I’m also in more panic now than I was last summer,” he said. “We had a year lease last year when the (Chetco Bar) fire started. I hear from the college, they’re tired of this process; they want their money out of this, and they’re going to list it for sale. There is a lot of fear on my part, if this doesn’t go forward, we may not be able to operate a program this fall for Head Start. That’s where we are.
“I don’t know what we’d do if it goes away. We’ve put about $100,000 into the Brookings economy with Head Start. It’s an integral part of the community.”
The program has 40 children enrolled, another 10 in Early Head Start and a staff of 10. Ninety percent of the parents work, and three are attending college while their children are in Head Start.
420 Redwood Spur
The building primarily needs a lot of electrical and some structural work, but inspections have shown the framing and foundation are solid.
Head Start students will either see school delayed or receive at-home schooling for about four months when work begins, Lehman said.
A licensed architect will be involved throughout the project, Lehman said. County Accountant Louise Kallstrom will administer the grant.
Commissioner Sue Gold said her biggest ambivalence about the project is that she doesn’t want to see another “green building” — a reference to the Port of Brookings Harbor and a vacant and never-used structure on Lower Harbor Road.
“You have my assurances we’re not going to let that happen,” Lehman said. “Ultimately, our name goes on that building. Ultimately, we’re responsible to take care of it. We are committed to making it happen.”
“I still would have voted against this,” said Commissioner Court Boice, who has voted against it in the past. “But after hearing testimony today, I have renewed confidence. Turning back to the State of Oregon, saying we couldn’t get our act together … I look at the benefit that this is to the community. We should do our best to be very supportive, attentive and get it done.”