By Peter H. Milliken
Mahoning County is spending more than $700,000 a year to lease or sublease office and other space for a host of permanent functions of county government, instead of housing them in county-owned buildings.
The costs per square foot per year for the leases range from $3.25 for the Mahoning County Children Services’ Broadway boys group home to $13.90 for the Sebring court.
The long- and short-term leasing occurs while Oakhill Renaissance Place, the 353,184-square-foot former hospital the county bought for $75,000 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 2006, is only 46 percent occupied.
“You can’t just say: ‘We’re going to get out of a lease, you know. You’ve got to come to Oakhill,’” said Carol Rimedio- Righetti, chairwoman of the county commissioners, adding that the county must abide by terms of its leases. “You just can’t get out of these leases that easily.”
Unless former hospital rooms are going to be used as is, renovating hospital space into offices costs “millions and millions of dollars,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have the money to do that,” she added.
One example of renovation costs was the $263,433 renovation of Oakhill space for the board of elections, which moved there from the county’s South Side Annex in September 2011.
With the county facilities department staff performing that renovation work in-house, those renovations cost $16.33 per square foot. The elections board occupies 10,864 square feet on Oakhill’s first floor and 5,271 square feet in its basement.
The county’s architects for Oakhill renovations, Olsavsky-Jaminet Architects Inc. of Youngstown, said details of the square footage and renovation expenses of all other county departments at Oakhill should come from the county.
Oakhill also houses the county’s Department of Job and Family Services, coroner’s office, veterans’ service commission, auto title department and recycling division. The county also rents Oakhill space to the city health department and the Mahoning-Youngstown Community Action Partnership.
The county’s dilemma is that it has only $2.6 million remaining of $14,540,000 it borrowed for renovations and repairs at Oakhill, which is the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center.
Of the remaining money, the commissioners have elected to use $1.6 million to pay down some of the debt, leaving $1 million to finish projects already under way, said Carol McFall, chief deputy county auditor.
McFall said compiling a detailed financial accounting of Oakhill expenses to date would be time-consuming and she did not know how soon she could complete the task.
the one-stop shop
“It has been my intention from day one to put as many county agencies and nonprofits into the Oak- hill Renaissance facility” as possible, said Commissioner Anthony Traficanti, who voted in favor of the Oakhill purchase.
“That was making Oakhill Renaissance center a one-stop shop. We have done just that up to this point,” he added.
“We should all sit down as a board (of commissioners) again and relook at what leases we have outstanding in the county and look at moving those and retrofitting them into Oakhill. Of course, we have to do a cost analysis,” Traficanti said. “We should be moving in as many, if not all, county agencies into Oakhill.”
“You can’t do it all at once. When you do renovation in a building of that size, it has to be compartmentalized,” Traficanti said.
“We’ve progressed very well. We’ve turned that facility into a beautiful building for the taxpayers of Mahoning County,” Traficanti said, adding that he still strongly believes the vote to buy the former hospital was a good decision.
“That’s a lot of money — $700,000 annually [to lease space], but does it get cheaper by going to Oakhill? No,” said Commissioner David Ditzler.
“The costs to continue to renovate [Oakhill] are almost double the cost that a tenant can get in the private sector,” in a lease with a private landlord, Ditzler said.
“Once you factor that into the equation, it’s difficult for even the government entities to afford to move into there to pay that rent because all of them are running on a shoestring now,” Ditzler observed.
“It’s a hard call what you do at this point,” Ditzler said, adding that he’d like to fill Oakhill with county agencies and nonprofit agencies if they can afford the renovation and occupancy costs in the former hospital.
“Oakhill is too far along, I believe, to plug the plug and stop,” he said.
“In a perfect ideal world,” all county agencies would occupy county buildings for the long term, Righetti said. However, she added: “I will not see this county go any further in debt if we can help it.”
Any county agency not funded by the county’s general fund or any non-profit organization that wants to occupy Oakhill space would have to provide its own renovation funds and pay rent, Righetti said.
“If it’s general-fund money, we still pay. We pay the bill,” Righetti said. The commissioners must find the money to renovate Oakhill space for any agencies funded by the county’s general fund, and those agencies don’t pay rent at Oakhill, she added.
Monies from the county’s general fund, which is its main operating fund, go to the commissioners’ office; microfilm and facilities departments; 911 dispatching center; the auditor’s, treasurer’s, recorder’s, sheriff’s, coroner’s and prosecutor’s offices; the clerk of courts; the common pleas, area and municipal courts; board of elections and planning and veterans’ service commissions.
new vs. old
Building a new county office building would have been cheaper in the long run than renovating and repairing Oakhill, Righetti said.
Ditzler agreed, saying his solution would have been to build a new downtown county office building. “New is better than old ... Everything is more efficient new,” including electrical, lighting and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems, he said.
Traficanti countered that the county didn’t have sufficient funds in 2006 to build a new building to accommodate all the county agencies now at Oakhill.
“You’re looking at new construction costs of $300 a square foot” for a minimum of 150,000 square feet, he said. That would amount to a $45 million building.
The county also saved more than $3.5 million by not having to move the coroner and morgue out of the former hospital, Traficanti said.
The county jail, which opened as a new building in 1996, cost more than $40 million, and the county is still paying for it, he noted.
Traficanti said a county budget specialist, Annemarie DeAscentis, helped obtain a $2.6 million federal stimulus grant for Oakhill’s new energy-efficient boiler system, and that he hopes more Oakhill renovation and improvement grants can be obtained by the Western Reserve Port Authority.
Righetti said she doesn’t believe the county will ever be able to completely fill Oakhill. “It’s too big. The costs to renovate are too high,” she explained.
The shortage of close parking for visitors is a significant disadvantage at Oakhill, where much of the proximity parking is reserved for disabled people, including disabled veterans, auto dealers, funeral directors, and Women, Infants and Children’s program clients, Righetti said.
“I have not had any complaints about any parking” at Oakhill, Traficanti said.
“Nothing’s perfect, but we continue to try to make it better,” Traficanti said of Oakhill, adding that he is proud of the Oakhill facility.
Another factor complicating the matter is the decentralized nature of county government and of its decision-making authority.
The only departments leasing or subleasing space that are under the direct control of the county commissioners are the lead abatement office and the planning and building inspection departments, Righetti said.
The commissioners leased the spaces occupied by the four area courts, but the courts are controlled by their judges.
The county’s health, mental health, ADAS and Children Services boards have their own governing boards, which approve their leases.
The Board of health
The county board of health leases 16,818 square feet of office space at 50 Westchester Drive from a private landlord for $176,589 annually.
The county commissioners sublease from the board of health the office space for the county building inspection department and planning commission, each occupying 2,488 square feet at $26,124 annually in that building.
The rent for the building inspection department is paid from building-permit fees, and the planning commission’s rent is paid from the county’s general fund, said Audrey Tillis, county budget director.
The leasing and subleasing arrangement for those county offices at 50 Westchester Drive began in June 1998. They were previously at the county-owned South Side Annex, 2801 Market St., which closed when its last occupant, the auto-title department, moved to Oakhill last October. The commissioners plan to sell or demolish the annex.
When the county health department moved 15 years ago, Matthew Stefanak, who was then the county health commissioner, said the Austintown location offered more space, better accessibility and closer proximity to the department’s customer base.
He added that the three departments often serve the same customers, so keeping them together creates a convenient one-stop shop.
The current county health commissioner, Patricia Sweeney, said those rationales for the Austintown location remain unchanged.
Righetti said she’d like to keep those departments and the lead abatement office in their Austintown quarters for the same reasons. “It’s like a one-stop shop there,” with ample parking, she said.
But when commissioners voted to buy Oakhill seven years ago, they intended for the former hospital to be a one-stop location for residents seeking a variety of services.
“The [county] board of health would be a great combination to put them with the city board of health on the same floor,” Traficanti said, referring to the city health department’s quarters on Oakhill’s second floor. After that move, Traficanti would like to consider merging the two health departments.
Ditzler, a former Austintown trustee, said he wants to keep the Westchester Drive cluster of agencies together as a convenient one-stop shop for builders and others, whether that office cluster stays in Austintown or moves elsewhere.
Moving to Oakhill would likely double occupancy costs for the Austintown group, Ditzler said. The health department now pays $10.50 per square foot per year for its offices in Austintown. For rent-paying agencies, “the cheapest we’re putting anybody in Oakhill is at $18 to $25” per square foot per year in combined renovation and rent costs, Ditzler said.
THE LEAD ABATEMENT OFFICE
The county commissioners lease 2,609 square feet for $18,264 a year for the county lead abatement office at 108 Westchester Drive from Austintown Township, but they can escape that lease with 90 days’ notice.
Electricity, heat, air conditioning and water and sewer service are included in the rent there.
“It makes good sense” for the lead office to be at the Austintown location, said Phillip O. Puryear, lead abatement director.
Puryear noted that the rent there is only $7 per square foot per year and paid from federal grant funds and that the location is close to those of the county health department and its lab, with which the lead office works closely.
The county health department performs risk assessments and takes and tests paint chip and dust samples before the lead office performs lead hazard control work, Puryear said.
The township renovated the lead office free of charge to the county, Puryear said.
The lead office was in the county administration building at 21 W. Boardman St. until about 10 years ago, Puryear said.
The mental health board
The county mental health board offices are on the second floor of the privately-owned Ohio One Building at 25 E. Boardman St., where the board pays $33,597 in annual rent for 2,823 square feet.
The board office has been there since the board was founded in 1968. The board coordinates and funds taxpayer-supported services provided by community mental health agencies in the county, but the board does not provide direct services to clients.
The board’s landlord, the Ohio One Corp., includes electric, water, sewer, heating, air conditioning and janitorial services and employee parking in the rent. The board pays its rent from local levy and state funds.
the ADAS board
The county’s Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board pays $18,000 annually to sublease its office space at 107 S. Champion St. from Mahoning County Treatment Alternatives to Street Crimes, with employee parking included in the rent.
The ADAS board office is directly across the street from that of the mental health board. Like the mental health board, the ADAS board funds treatment agencies with public money, but does not provide direct service to clients.
Federal funds pay the ADAS rent.
Being downtown is convenient for the ADAS board because of the proximity to other county offices with which the board staff works, said Brenda Heidinger, ADAS board interim director.
Merger talks had been occurring between the county mental health and ADAS boards. However, Ron Marian, mental health board executive director, said the merger talks are on hold until after the Nov. 5 election, when voters will consider renewal of a .85-mill, five-year, county-wide mental health levy that raises $3.2 million annually.
Laura Lyden, chairwoman of the county mental health board, wrote to Ron Chordas, ADAS board president, in March, saying the mental health board had elected to delay further talks concerning consolidation of services with the ADAS board.
Lyden explained that her board was concerned that “any change in the name and/or purpose of the current local levy would potentially jeopardize the passing of the levy and therefore could impede our ability to deliver services to our clients.”
When the costs of moving, renovations and a utility-cost allocation for Oak- hill space are considered, Marian said moving his office to Oakhill would be more costly than continuing his tenancy in the Ohio One Building. He also said there is no escape clause in his lease, which has three years left.
If his office were to move, Marian said he would prefer to move into part of the second floor of the county Children Services Building, 222 W. Federal St., because that is a secure downtown building with ample on-premises parking.
That location would keep his office close to CSB and the county probate court, auditor’s and treasurer’s offices, with which his office works closely, he added.
The county-owned CSB building has 12,000 square feet of vacant second floor space, according to budget director Tillis.
Located in an office building that opened in 2005, the second floor CSB building space would be easier to renovate for the mental-health board than Oakhill Renaissance Place, said Howard Merritt, mental health board finance director.
Oakhill was built in stages between 1910 and 1972.
“I had many chances to move, but I saved the money so the agencies could have the money,” Marian said, noting that the board could have moved adjacent to Turning Point Counseling Service and the D&E Counseling Center on the city’s North Side. Marian has been with the board since 1974.
The second floor of the CSB building “would be an ideal location,” for the mental health and ADAS boards because of its security features, Righetti said, adding that she expects the commissioners and the mental health and ADAS board to discuss a mental health-ADAS merger within the next 12 to 18 months.
Heidinger said she’d rather move the ADAS office to the CSB building than to Oak- hill for the same reasons as Marian and Merritt.
The county commissioners would have to approve any merger between the mental health and ADAS boards, Heidinger and Righetti said.
Mahoning County is one of only three Ohio counties with separate mental health and ADAS boards, Heidinger said.
Ditzler said he favors merging the mental health and ADAS boards and moving them to the second floor of the CSB building.
“It absolutely needs to be done, and that’s something I’m promoting and pursuing,” Ditzler said.
“That would be a great thing to do,” Traficanti agreed, adding that a merger could cut costs.
Richard Mills, president of the Ohio One Corp., declined to comment on the cost-competitiveness of his lease for the mental-health board compared with the board’s potential occupancy of the CSB building.
The Children Services board
The county Children Services Board spends a total of $25,200 annually to lease from nonprofit organizations group homes on Broadway and Glenwood avenues, with gas, water and electric utility costs not included in the rent.
The rent and utilities are paid for by a combination of local levy and federal and state funds, said Randall Muth, who became CSB executive director in July.
Under state law, CSB is not allowed to own real estate, so, if the county were to own the group homes, the property would be vested in the board of county commissioners, Muth said.
“It is my intent to review all the important aspects of the agency in an effort to determine whether there are more efficient ways of providing the services entrusted to the agency,” Muth said.