Taking Responsibility For Today’s Needs

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Swift County, the City of Benson, District 777 schools, and the Swift County-Benson Hospital face a daunting array of financial challenges to address delayed maintenance on buildings, upgrade facilities to meet today’s and future needs, and adapt to changing technology.

Operating out of a 1940s building that isn’t handicapped accessible, the City of Benson has four key management personnel who are not easily accessible - the city manager, director of finance, public works director and building inspector are all on the second floor.  

The city’s police department is stuffed in inadequate space in the basement and because it is down a flight of stairs, not easily accessible to those with handicaps. The dispatcher’s location prevents the person from seeing who is approaching down the hallways. Evidence can’t be properly secured and there isn’t acceptable space for talking with people who are crime victims.

But the outdated building poses other challenges. Its electrical system is ancient by today’s standards with fuses and levers in its electric service boxes and wiring that is substandard. Its bathrooms don’t meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. There could be mold growing inside its walls because of water seeping into the building and vinyl wall covering that traps moisture.

Its mechanical equipment on the roof is outdated and energy inefficient. There are problems with doors and windows. The list of problems with the building goes on and on.

After studying the building, architect Reed Becker of Alexandria engineering and architectural firm Widseth, Smith and Nolting told the Benson City Council that it would be cheaper to build a new facility rather than remodel the current building. The cost of a new building was estimated at $1.633 million while remodeling is estimated at $1.721 million. But that remodeling cost could go higher and there would be considerable disruption as staff is moved to a new location for six to eight months.
 

District 777 is looking at a 10-year maintenance and upgrade plan that will cost between $10 and $15 million. Just the basic cost of doing necessary work to keep the Northside Elementary, Senior High School, and Junior High School operating efficiently over the next decade is estimated at around $11.5 million.

The board of education is also considering adding early childhood classroom space at the Northside to meet the growing need to provide programs for three and four-year-olds. Architect Paul Youngquist of Architects Rego + Youngquist of St. Louis Park, who works with school districts across the state, has said that early childhood facilities are key to keeping and attracting young families to a community.

“I have observed in the districts that have a really nice place to bring your zero to five-year-olds, the parents bring them there,” Youngquist said. “The districts that don’t have a very attractive spot for the kids, well, the parents are bringing them somewhere else.

“If you bring a two-year-old someplace and they are in a program for three years and they start to make all kinds of friends, and it seems like it is kind of easy to bring them to the next city over, they will stay there,” he said.

The cost of the addition with six classrooms for early childhood education is about $3 million.

The board also faces the question of dumping money into the junior high buildings constructed in 1928 and 1950, space that wasn’t designed for today’s education needs, or demolishing them and building new space.

Swift County is currently conducting a facilities study to determine the cost of not only addressing major heating and cooling infrastructure problems at the historic 1898 courthouse, but issues with its other buildings as well. The cost is already estimated to be in the millions.
 

The Swift County-Benson Hospital is seeking referrals for financing proposals for a $10 to $15 million construction and renovation project to bring its healthcare delivery up to today’s continuum of care needs and to meet future community needs.

It is looking at construction of a new two-story assisted living and memory care facility south of Scofield Place at a cost of up to $10 million. It would have 34 units for assisted living plus care and 16 memory care units on the second floor. The first floor would have 27 assisted living units, some two-bedroom units.

Scofield Place would have 31 units that are designed as senior living plus units to serve seniors who are mostly independent, but still need some help with meals and medications.

A $5 million second phase of the project would involve moving inpatient and emergency services care to the west end of the hospital close to the surgical center, he said. It would also involve demolition of the current inpatient wing of the hospital.
 

The City of Benson and Swift County are also looking into future development of land around the city. When the study is completed, they will face the decision of whether they acquire the land and invest in installing infrastructure that can serve future business development. That cost could also be in the millions.
 
Delaying addressing the financial challenges that face our local governments will only shift the burden to the next generation at a much higher cost. Not only will that cost come in higher costs of construction and higher interest rates, it will be due to the neglect of the current generation requiring even more extensive work in the future.

Furthermore, opposing needed work simply to say no to the cost puts us behind in our economic development efforts, hurts the level of services the community can provide, and will lead to people not considering the Benson area or Swift County as a good place to live and raise a family.

Of course, taxpayers need to scrutinize the proposals for maintenance work and new facilities that are proposed by local governments to ensure we are getting what is needed and functional, not a list that includes niceties rather than necessities.

This is not an easy time to be a member of a public body, but from what we have seen our local leaders are doing a conscientious job of weighing the challenges we face and addressing them in a fiscally responsible way.
 

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