We all strive for purpose. Commissioner Ruthie Schlabach has found hers with the animal shelter. The Concurrent’s purpose is to promote difficult conversations among people who might otherwise avoid them in favor of community unity.
If someone is going to start a difficult conversation about the shelter project, which is so closely tied to Commissioner Schlabach, it should be me. She has publicly called me out in the pages of the Chronicle for attacking her practice of accepting dark money (her defense of the practice was riddled with falsehoods, but that’s a story for a different time) and I’m seen as someone who is anti-Ruthie.
This, of course, is untrue. I’m anti-practices that are detrimental to Citrus County public affairs. The animal shelter project is on course to be a disaster, but it’s not going to be Commissioner Schlabach’s fault, it is going to be ours.
In the last Commission meeting, the Board voted to lower the borrowed amount from $7.5 million down the $6.52 million. This was a mistake.
It’s a strange argument for a conservative such as myself to take a position against lowering a taxpayer burden. However, the only thing worse than paying too much for an animal shelter is underpaying for a shelter that won’t be sufficient to meet the needs of the next 30 years. It will be more expensive to fix or expand than it will be to build correctly now.
Earlier this year, the Commission paid for a consultant to give them an idea of how much an animal shelter would cost. That consultant said $11.5 million and the Commission discarded the report as an absurd number that would be “dead on arrival” Commissioner Jeff Kinnard told the Chronicle.
The Commission’s strategy is to give the contractor the hard number of $9 million and that the project must be completed within that budget.
The bid is awarded to the contractor without seeing competitive cost so that firms responding to the proposals are chosen based on quality of work rather than price. This is Florida law; one that County Administrator Randy Oliver lamented in the meeting.
This means bidding firms drew up plans for how they would meet the county’s needs for a shelter without worrying about the price tag associated with it. Early indications from discussions in the meetings is that the base shelter will cost about $12 million.
Commissioner Schlabach said that she has not begun to scratch the surface of private donations and did not put up much of a fight lowering the borrowing amount despite the growing costs because of this.
This is problematic for three reasons.
The first is that there’s no clear plan for cost overages other than to direct the contractor to make significant reductions to the base shelter that could hurt its long-term viability.
The second is that donors have no idea whether they are contributing to the extras or to the base shelter and this confusion is going to become a deterrent at just the time when their help is going to be needed more than ever.
The third is the number of options the county has left to exhaust are rapidly diminishing. The Commission voted to completely deplete the impact fee fund dedicated to buildings on Tuesday and had previously voted to use all sales of county properties to reduce the amount needing to be borrowed.
Here’s an important distinction. It’s to reduce the amount needing to be borrowed rather than to cover the amount that could potentially result in cost overages.
I applaud the Commission for wanting to keep costs within their previously planned budget, but if a consultant has told them it will be an $11.5 million project, and now their contractors are telling them it will be a $12 million project, then it is simply irresponsible to be taking actions that limit our ability to act when it becomes larger than a $9 million project.
Commissioner Schlabach has done an incredible job as the public face of this project. We’re going to let her down if we aren’t critical of the direction this is headed. I don’t think a shelter should cost $12 million but if a consultant and a contractor tell me it does; I’m inclined to believe them.
The absolute worst outcome is to build something that will need to be addressed again within the next couple of years simply because we were too polite to face some difficult conversations now.