Curry County commissioners agreed Wednesday they will pick up the pieces of the $1.6 million grant received to renovate the Head Start building in Brookings — a project the county agreed to four years ago and should have been finished by now.

The 2-1 vote was contingent, however, on the county bridging the $56,000 gap between two appraisals on the property.

The board did not arrive at its decision easily.

“I am absolutely not supportive of this,” said Commissioner Tom Huxley, who has in the past said the project is an “outrageous waste” of taxpayer dollars and who cast the dissenting vote Wednesday. “We should cut our losses and move on.”

If the county were to bow out of the project, it will have to pay back the $1.64 million grant to the state Infrastructure Financing Authority (IFA), and the failure to complete a project could affect the county’s ability to secure grant funds in the future, County Attorney John Huttl said. The state has since said, however, it would not require the county to pay back the $111,000 already spent on the project, as that is considered to have been part of the planning process.

But Mike Lehman, the executive director of the Oregon Coast Community Action (ORCCA) that operates the early education program for low-income families, was determined.

He said he is confident the new architect — the first one allegedly overcharged the county and was fired — will manage the construction properly.

“ORCCA has skin in the game, a vested interest,” Huttl noted. “It’s not as if they’re doing this for someone else. They’re doing it for themselves.”

The building

The property on Redwood Spur is owned by Southwestern Oregon Community College and was originally intended for use as a library. ORCCA has operated Head Start in that building for more than five years.

The building has numerous problems, according to County Facilities Director Eric Hansen. They include exposed electrical wires, wall paneling glued to paneling underneath that — and that is peeling off the wall — non-tempered glass windows, and hidden spaces in the attic where “I’m sure there’s lots of dead critters,” Hanson said in an earlier meeting.

Fire alarms are inoperable, there is one fire extinguisher in the 5,000-square-foot building, bathrooms are not ADA-compliant, electricity was run on the outside of walls and the heat can’t be turned on because children could lean against the baseboard heaters.

A further inspection by Oni Shaw, owner of Wild Rivers Inspections, outlined the shortcomings, possible costs and time frames in which they should be addressed. About $16,000 in electrical fixes need to be done immediately; Lehman said that was a top priority as children are using the building.

“That confirmed the eyeball inspection us lay people did,” Huttl said. “The building is in not that bad a shape; there’s no rot, structural, nothing that would raise a red flag that would say we’d be in a heap of trouble if we go forward.”

Commissioner Court Boice said he was worried that if the county backs out, the Head Start program would dissolve, as well.

“We’re confident the building meets standards for Head Start,” Leaman said. “Is it nice and fluffy? No, but it meets the standards. If this didn’t go forward, I wouldn’t sit here and tell you we Head Start is out of Brookings, goodbye, good luck. We would do something, try to come up with funds to buy it from SWOCC without the upgrades. We’d continue operating it without upgrades. That’s less than desirable, but that’d be our first choice.”

Location, location

The county has tried to locate other buildings and property to relocate, to no avail.

“The problem is, we were looking a couple years ago during remodel and could not find a location in the Brookings area,” Lehman said. “That is the one risk with that. Without (this), there will always be scrambling for space.”

The county would also like SWOCC to sell this building to ORCCA. One appraisal conducted years ago put the value at $314,000; a second, more recent one, at $370,000.

The difference could be made up if SWOCC would agree to sell the building at the older, lower value, or if ORCCA could find additional funds elsewhere.

Boice also expressed concern about the overall condition and age of the building.

“The sheer amount of money we’re looking at putting into it,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out a way to keep this. I’m concerned it may not be the best value for our dollar.”

Lehman said the building has to meet national Head Start standards, and the remodel conducted years ago took care of that.

“We’re now in year seven of a three-year grant,” he said about the time crunch they face. “One year to get an extension; that’s normal. The second one … OK. We’re running into time frames. I’m not optimistic that if we didn’t do this, we could get a grant elsewhere.”

Huxley reiterated his opinion that the county should cut its losses.

“Thank the state for forgiving the six figures of loss and walk away from it,” he said.

Boice countered, saying that would be the “absolute last resort” for him, but added later he was concerned about all the money the county was spending.

“We’re going to get a big-time lawyer (for union negotiations) when we have a perfectly good staff,” he said of a decision made earlier in the meeting. “Then we spend money to find a good administrator when we already have one. …”

“I’ve agreed with Commissioner Huxley, in hindsight,” Lehman said. “Just to get it to this stage. But there’s no way around this. The amount we’ve invested so far disappears if we don’t go ahead. There’s no easy way. I honestly believe — I’m convinced — it’s going to get easier going forward than it’s been to this point.”

Lehman agreed the county would still be taking a chance.

“I’d never say absolutely about anything in this project,” he said. “A year ago when I took this on, I said, this is a slam-dunk. At this stage, I can’t imagine what bugs are left in there. I’d say 50 to 85 percent Brookings will end up with a nice facility in a nice location. And we’ve been through this six ways to Sunday. I’m convinced it’s ready to go.”

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