A handful of Lone Pine residents gathered at Statham Hall Monday evening to hear information about the new county consolidated office building that is being proposed in Bishop, but only a few residents voiced opinions or asked questions about the proposal.
Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce Director Kathleen New said she has heard a number of negative comments from various Southern Inyo County residents, and local leaders stressed that there are no plans to move offices or services from Lone Pine or any other communities to Bishop if the building is approved.
To kick off the meeting and provide residents with some context, County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio and Deputy Public Works Director Jim Tatum discussed the history of the project (which included various proposals for consolidated county office space in Bishop dating back to 1998), lease issues for office space in Bishop that the county experienced in the past few years, potential economic benefits for the project and a brief description of the process the county is currently engaged in regarding the building proposal.
According to Carunchio, a consolidated office building in Bishop “is not a new idea.” He explained that Inyo County owns a 5.69 acre parcel of property in south Bishop, near Jack in the Box, and from 1998-2005 proposals for a 55,695 square-foot office building had been proposed at one point. Later, another office building, 61,112 square feet that would include court facilities, was proposed.
Carunchio said those proposals got shelved when potential developers said they would only take on the project if the county opted for “traditional financing” and the interest rates that accumulate with those kinds of loans. “There wasn’t anything real creative” in those proposals,” Carunchio said.
From 2005-07 the consolidated office idea remained in limbo. But in ’07, with a number of leases in Bishop set to expire, local leaders were faced with the challenge of attempting to house various county departments with growing lease costs.
At the time, the county was leasing 43,586 square feet of office space in Bishop at $463,920 a year, and prices were expected to rise as the leases expired.
Carunchio said his first step was to contact local property owners and landlords to find the necessary office space to keep services rolling, but larger landholders, including the owner of Cottonwood Plaza and the old Kmart building at the intersection of Main and Yaney streets, did not respond to inquiries about leasing space.
Carunchio said his next step was to develop a “short term plan” that included moving the Inyo County Water Department from Bishop to a vacant, county-owned building in Independence. Six other offices in Bishop were moved to new locations.
Carunchio said that plan reduced the county’s Bishop office space by 773 square feet, and resulted in about $120,600 less in rent payments each year. “This plan works,” Carunchio said, “but it wasn’t ideal. It was a short-term plan.”
The next step Carunchio took was to revisit the idea of a consolidated county office building in Bishop and issue a request for proposals to more than 350 developers in January 2010, seeking “creative” ideas on ways to get an office building constructed at minimal cost to the taxpayers.
Carunchio said that two companies responded to the RFP, a construction firm based in Texas and California, and the Bishop-based Joseph Enterprises, which owns a parcel of property at the intersection of U.S. 6 and Wye Road.
For the next 16 months, county staff worked with both firms to hammer out details of their proposals. In September 2011, the Board of Supervisors entered into an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement with Joseph Enterprises and decided to drop talks with the other firm.
At Monday’s meeting, New asked why the county selected Joseph Enterprises over the other firm. Carunchio said the proposal from Joseph Enterprises was “a better deal for the county.”
Tatum explained that Joseph Enterprises, in addition to being a local company itself, has agreed to purchase as much building material as it can from local vendors, will utilize local contractors and, because Joseph Enterprises is proposing a land swap (the Wye Road parcel in exchange for the county-owned South Bishop parcel), the proposal will “make additional land available for new (private) development,” a goal that is spelled out in the county General Plan.
Carunchio also said that Joseph Enterprises has agreed to bear the burden of the cost for the design phase of the project before the county even agrees to proceed with the project.
According to Tatum, Joseph Enterprises has agreed to construct the building at its sole expense and sign a 20-year lease-to-own contract with the county, which will pay monthly lease payments, with three additional payments of $250,000 in years five, 10 and 15 of the lease. After the 20-year lease agreement ends, the county will buy the new building for $1.
The county currently has a preliminary draft building design – essentially a footprint that shows the size of the building and how various departments could be housed. A finalized floor-plan for the building will be designed at a later date if the county chooses to proceed with the consolidated building plan.
Based on the term sheet, the total cost of the building would cost a grand total of $14,750,001 – if it is constructed at the proposed 42,000 square feet. (An expanded building, at 45,000 square feet has also been suggested to ensure that there is enough room in the consolidated building to meet the county’s needs.)
According to Tatum, given the price the county is currently paying to rent office space in Bishop, the new building would “pay off pretty quickly,” with the county “breaking even” in about four years. After 20 years, the county will begin saving money by completely eliminating its lease cost in Bishop.
In addition to the savings on rent, Tatum explained that the county would be saving about $27,000 a year on utility costs because the building will be constructed with every energy efficiency available.
The county also expects to be able to eliminate up to four staff positions “through attrition” because the new building will allow county departments to consolidate secretarial and reception staff members.
“The opportunity is now,” Tatum said. “Financing rates are at a 40-year low. The window is closing. Two years from now, it may be too expensive.”
When residents were asked to weigh in on the proposed project, New pointed out that the group in attendance was given a lot of information that was “very, very hard to understand.”
She wanted clarification as to why the county is pursuing the land exchange with Joseph Enterprises rather than looking at constructing a new consolidated office building on the property it already owns.
Simply put, Carunchio said the partnership with Joseph Enterprises is a “better deal,” because the county will not be required to develop its own site plan. Carunchio also said that to build on its parcel in South Bishop, the county would be required to extend Jay Street and construct utility hook-ups for the building, “a lot of infrastructure cost.”
New also asked if the building would include extra space for growth in the future.
Carunchio and Tatum explained that there are several meeting rooms designed in the preliminary floor plan that could be used as additional office space if the need arises.
Fifth District Supervisor Matt Kingsley added that the population in Bishop is steady, and if any growth were to take place in Inyo County, it would likely be in the southern parts of the county, where private land is available. He added that designing the building to fit Bishop’s needs means that there is no room for the county to move departments from the southern end of the county to Bishop.
Tatum added that the county will not, under any circumstances, be moving any offices or services from Lone Pine or Independence to Bishop. In fact, he said, some offices may be moved from Bishop to the southern communities.
New said that there are “some things I disagree with on this,” and reported that she has fielded questions from a number of Lone Pine residents who are not in favor of the new building proposal.
When asked if he had any comments, Lone Pine resident Le Roy Kritz said only that he believes “paying rent is a waste of money,” suggesting that the county should move forward with the building proposal.
Another resident asked if the county could save money by purchasing modular buildings, rather than embarking on a multi-million dollar construction project.
Tatum explained that modular buildings tend to have a shorter lifespan and the county is looking to build a two-story building to get the needed square-footage and “the cost of modulars skyrockets when you look at multi-tiers.”
Fourth District Supervisor Mark Tillemans also pointed out that modular buildings would be constructed out-of-county, and shipped to the area, while the proposed “stick-built” consolidated office would put local contractors to work.
New also asked what the county is proposing to do with the county-owned South Street building, where the county Ag Department and public health facilities are currently housed.
Carunchio said no firm plans have been made for that site, but he pointed out that the county recently invested in a new roof for that building. He said it could be used as storage for the county’s paper records or it could remain an office building.
County Director of Public Health Tamara Cohn expressed an interest in maintaining the South Street building as a public health office, but added that some improvements, including construction of Americans with Disabilities Act compliant entries and exits, are needed.
The county will hold one more public hearing on the proposed consolidated building to gather input from residents. That meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19 in the Bishop City Council Chambers.