Curry County commissioners are unsure if they will pursue the renovation of the Head Start building in Brookings, with Commissioner Chair Tom Huxley saying the work so far has been an “enormous waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Head Start is an early-learning program for low-income children, and also ensures they get nutritious meals to maintain good health, provides support for families and strengthen parent-child relationships around children’s learning and development.
If the county opts to bow out of the project, it will have to pay back the $1.64 million grant to the state Infrastructure Financing Authority (IFA) — including $111,000 that has already been spent — and the failure to complete a project could affect the county’s ability to secure grant funds in the future, County Attorney John Huttl told the board during a workshop Wednesday.
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 be complete no later than June 2018.
“Twenty-six months and well over $100,000 later, almost no measurable progress has occurred,” Huxley said. “The result has been an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars, and no consequences for the unsatisfactory management of the project. After 26 months of mismanagement, this project needs to be returned to the state to stop the waste of taxpayer dollars.”
He identified eight of 10 items listed by the state that have yet to be accomplished, including estimated task completion dates, county staff and legal time and associated costs and state review of contracts among them.
Commissioners agreed the project has been managed poorly. The grant was secured by then-Commissioner Susan Brown and not followed up on when she lost her seat to Court Boice.
The property on Alder Street is owned by Southwestern Oregon Community College and was originally intended for use as a library. Head Start is operated by the nonprofit Oregon Coast Community Action (ORCCA) and provides preschool education for low-income children. It has operated in the building for five years.
In June of 2015, the county received the $1.64 million grant from the IFA to buy and renovate the building. The architect didn’t “stick to the original plans” and was fired; that issue is still being contested, Huttl said.
The county would like SWOCC to sell or donate the property to ORCCA; the last appraisal, in 2012, valued the building at $313,000 and that money is in the grant. If a new appraisal comes in higher, however, the county would have to come up with the difference.
“We tried to change some line items around,” Huttl said of the grant funds, “but they haven’t been too receptive to that.”
About $1 million is designated for repairs, which in the 5,000-square-foot building, comes to about $200 a square foot. County Facilities Director Eric Hanson said it’s easy to see why that cost is so high.
“The problems we have (in the building) is why we have this budget,” he said. “There are several code violations here.”
The list is lengthy: 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. Fire alarms are inoperable, there is one fire extinguisher in the building, bathrooms are not ADA-compliant, electricity runs on the outside of walls and the heat can’t be turned on because children could lean against the baseboard heaters.
“There are all sorts of issues we need to deal with,” Hanson said. “We need to take it down to the studs. And as in any remodel, you start ripping off the walls and you’re going to find a can of worms.”
There is no water, roof or structural damage, he noted.
Huttl said the overall mood of those who gathered after the building inspection was good.
But those good feelings were shadowed Wednesday by the reality of the work needed, its expense — and if the project will even be a priority for commissioners.
Huxley noted that in addition to the grant funds already spent, more expenses would be incurred for administration of the funds, legal fees and other costs not in the original grant proposal.
Commissioner Sue Gold, herself a teacher and vice-chair on the Brookings-Harbor School District, said she would only be in favor of continuing the project if a project manager could be hired soon.
Others noted the benefits of having the Head Start program in the county.
In addition to preparing children for school, completing the project would enable the county to have a good relationship with the IFA and ORCCA.
“This is one of the biggest grants Curry County has ever received,” Boice said. “It’s not something we’re incapable of doing, and this is for a very good cause. If we’re not willing to improve our county’s infrastructure, that money will go elsewhere.”