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In My Opinion

 

County can’t find the right tune

Folks, “We got trouble. Right here in River City.”

Those words from the 1957 Broadway musical “The Music Man” may sound familiar, but they could apply to our own “river city” where Barry County commissioners have hired TowerPinkster, the Kalamazoo-based architectural and engineering firm to facilitate a discussion of the “crumbling infrastructure” at the county jail and the Commission on Aging building.

Taxpayers, who are footing the bill for the facilitation contract approved in August at a cost not to exceed $50,000, should be questioning what they’re getting for their money. My suspicion is that commissioners aren’t looking for a solution to these infrastructure challenges, but rather have hired a traveling pitchman like “Professor” Harold Hill to con us into believing this is money well spent.

After holding his firm’s first community meeting Nov. 4, Eric Hackman, senior project manager at TowerPinkster, had the temerity to tell commissioners at a Nov. 19 board meeting that he had concerns about the process. He suggested that maybe the county should hire a demographer because TowerPinkster is an architectural firm and doesn’t have that kind of expertise.

Yet TowerPinkster was hired by county officials to facilitate a plan, a plan that has nothing to do with architecture – so why was it hired for this study?

“Our recommendation would be to hire the services of a demographer to help us understand the nuances of the demographic makeup of Barry County,” Hackman told commissioners. “We do this a lot with schools.”

But the county would be wasting even more money by heeding yet another costly recommendation because demographics aren’t necessary to study the need for a jail, and the COA already has ample information on the growing number of older citizens – if commissioners would just ask for it.

At a recent Hastings Rotary Club meeting, Tammy Pennington, executive director of the COA, spoke about the need for a larger facility and of the structural problems that plague the present facility. She gave Rotarians figures on how many seniors currently use programs and provided a snapshot of projected needs in the future.

Just using U.S. Census figures, one can build the case demographically for additional space. In 2017, about 15.6 percent of the American population was 65 year or older, a figure that is expected to reach 22.1 percent by 2050. Currently, there are more than 46 million older adults age 65 or older and, by 2050, that number is expected to hit almost 90 million. So there’s no question that the retirement-age population is growing and people are living longer.

So why should county commissioners hire another “expert” when the COA staff has the numbers needed and TowerPinkster completed a comprehensive master facilities plan that cost taxpayers more than $62,000 in 2014? Sounds like the residents of River City, Iowa, buying band instruments and marching uniforms from the music man who knew nothing about music.

Demographers are hired to study population size and composition trends to help predict how a community is likely to change in the years to come. Well, we already know that Barry County’s population is growing older.

The real issue here is, does the COA need a new building or could another building, like the present health department, be converted to accommodate the COA? That question has been discussed over and over with no action from county commissioners. As part of the 2015 master facilities plan, TowerPinkster considered whether the building is suitable for the COA and provided some possible figures on the cost of renovation.

The firm also looked at the potential of moving the health department into the Friend of the Court building on Broadway and State streets in downtown Hastings and transferring the FOC to the Courts and Law building on Court Street.

The numbers are all available. The problem has been the inability of county commissioners to put together a reasonable proposal that would satisfy the COA and the county’s taxpayers.

As for the jail, county officials are expected to provide services to create a healthy, safe and vibrant community. Maintaining a safe and secure community is one of the most important functions of county government. Most counties are involved in nearly every aspect of law enforcement and crime prevention, including policing, judicial, legal services and corrections.

Today, experts say one way to effectively manage jail population is to improve the pretrial release process. Once again, why aren’t commissioners bringing in the judges, court staff and law enforcement personnel to determine what kind of facility the county will need in the future – especially if new techniques are being used to keep as many law breakers from incarceration as possible? And who better to look for those answers than the men and women on the front lines?

This is where county commissioners fail taxpayers by spending thousands of dollars on so-called experts and studies and not bringing together the people who have a vested interest in solving these problems. Why not start with a citizens group of experienced men and women from the trades and from the groups of people who use these buildings to review the facilities and report their findings to commissioners and the general public? These meetings could be videotaped and transcribed to document the entire process so commissioners would be making decisions with facts – rather than being driven by wants and emotions.

However the discussion goes, there’s still the overriding issue that the jail and the Commission on Aging building have nothing to do with each other.

Each should be considered separately – in discussions and on any possible ballot – to avoid any confusion in an effort to identify what’s best for each agency.

A good pitchman is almost as good as a solution. From where I sit, that’s what commissioners are getting for our (not to exceed) $50,000 – a high-paid music man pitchman to sell the county’s taxpayers on these two projects, rather than looking for the best alternative and then acting on each issue.

It’s time to put this process on hold and step back to do some homework on the issues. By using a group of selected local experts, a valid plan that taxpayers will have some confidence in can be determined.

Then we can all enjoy the music of 76 trombones!

 

 

Fred Jacobs, CEO,

J-Ad Graphics Inc.

 

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