Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The current Stillwater County Courthouse.

Citizen to commissioners: Get your credibility back

At the July 11 Stillwater County Commission agenda meeing, a citizen offered some advice regarding the ongoing saga of the old hospital and county office space.
“Get this straightened out and get your credibility back,” said Richard Sidwell.
Sidwell also told the trio that it was two against one (Commissioners Maureen Davey and Dennis Shupak against Commissioner Mark Crago) and that while they bicker, the public is paying the bill.
“From the public, you’re spending our money,” said Sidwell. “I think you need to back up...let the public decide.”
Moments before, citizen Linda Halstead-Acharya read a letter expressing her thoughts in which she said she had been waiting and watching for 20 years to see how the county would grow and how it would handle it’s space issues.
Halstead-Acharya’s letter stated that she did not agree with or understand the desire to renovate the old hospital and urged the commission to rethink its stance.
“I urge our county commissioners not to invest more tax dollars in an old building of questionable value,” Halstead-Acharya wrote in the letter. “Stop. Go back to start and let’s rethink this with the next 100 years in mind. And, please, take your constituents’ comments to heart,” the letter continued.
The comments from Sidewell and Halstead-Acharya came at the end of the meeting. During the meeting, the battle over whether the old hospital should be used as new county office space heated up, with a handful of new developments in the past two weeks.

Commissioners Davey and Shupak pushed forward with a Request For Proposal and/or Request For Qualification Proposals/Scope of Services to secure an abatement consultant for the old hospital.
Facilities Supervisor Jerry Bokma said he had been in contact with three companies in Billings regarding the preparation of bid documents.
Davey said this was the next step needed to “mitigate the public nuisance” that Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde had said existed upon the discovery of approximately 13,000 to 14,000 square feet of asbestos-containing material in the old hospital.
Rohde had strongly advised — and the commissioners complied — sealing off the building upon that discovery of the asbestos by a grant-funded inspection in May.
Davey also said “We’ve got a roof leaking.”
That’s as far as Davey got before once again, getting strong opposition from Commissioner Mark Crago, who said the entire issue of using the old hospital was “an obsolete topic,” considering the county does not yet know what it is going to do with the building.
Crago also called any money being spent on the building at this point a “waste of taxpayer money,” especially considering there is a federal grant available for the asbestos mediation, of which the county has already completed Phase 1.
Crago also said the matter needs to be put before the public now.
Davey responded by saying “this has been confusing for me,” because Rohde said different things about how quickly the abatement needed to occur.
Rohde clarified her position, saying she had changed her mind after learning that as long as no one was working in the building, no danger existed. Because of that, the county can take its time to develop a plan and move forward from that point. That plan, said Rohde, begins with deciding what is going to happen with the old hospital — tearing it down, selling it or renovating it for county office space.

Rohde then addressed the issue of “piece-mealing” together projects at the old hospital in order to stay under the $80,000 threshold that mandates government entities seek bids for projects — something Rohde said he believes has been happening.
“You are violation the statute and you are putting yourselves at risk for criminal prosecution,” said Rohde.
Davey denied that “piece-mealing” had taken place. Rohde responded by saying the Montana Association of Counties legal counsel agreed with her on the statute.
Rohde has also said that a plan must be made and that the commissioners must be transparent with the public about what is happening.

The county filed a response letter to the Department of Environmental Quality regarding four specific issues with the asbestos disturbance and removal issues in a letter dated June 28.
The commission sent the DEQ the asbestos report completed in early March by Weston Solutions, Inc., Superfund Technical Assessment and Response Team (START) out of Colorado.
Commissioners also advised DEQ they were in the process of getting proposals from Montana accredited asbestos survey companies for “consulting on an abatement contract.”
Also, the commission asked if DEQ could provide the appropriate paperwork needed to file a NESHAP form regarding the approximately 1,000 square feet of asbestos-containing drywall that had been removed and discarded.
In a response letter from DEQ dated July 12, Environmental Enforcement Specialist John Rasmann advised the commission that because it did not conduct an asbestos-inspection “prior to the removal and disposal of the drywall, this is a violation of ARM 17.74.354(1), which states that a DEQ-accredited asbestos inspector shall inspect the facility prior to any demolition or renovation,” according to Rasmann’s letter.

At what point a government entity is required by law to bid out a project was the issue at hand in a July 18 phone conference call with the Stillwater County commissioners, Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde and Montana Association of Counties legal counsel Brian Hopkins.
Commissioner Maureen Davey and Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde each have spoken with Hopkins regarding various issues with the old hospital and plans to renovate it for county office space.
Those conversations have ranged from asbestos to ceiling tiles. The goal of the meeting was to have everyone asking the same questions and hearing the same answers.
In short, Hopkins said Rohde was correct in advising the commission that if a project is more than $80,000, and county employees cannot do the work, the project must be bid out. That is the case in Stillwater County.
Rohde said in her assessment of the current situation, the single goal of the project has remained the same for the past five years, which is creating more county office space.
Whether or not the county decides to renovate the old hospital for that purpose, the building has to be remediated due to more than 13,000 square feet of asbestos-containing material being found in a recent assessment.
The county needs to abate the building, go back to the public to see what it wants and develop a plan, said Rohde.
Davey agreed with Rohde, saying she would like to give the public options by hiring another architect to take a look at what could be done and also repairing the roof.
“It’s not my intention to circumvent” the $80,000 threshold, said Davey.
Hopkins said how the abatement is done will depend on if the building is demolished or renovated. He also said that Rohde made a good point as far as needing to have a plan and taking it to the public.
“Full disclosure is best,” said Hopkins.
Davey asked about performing what she considers to be maintenance kinds of things at the old hospital, such as replacing rain gutters, the roof repair and other things that would address the “integrity of the building.”
Commissioner Mark Crago interjected that the roof issue would have been a maintenance issue if the county would have used the insurance money it received five years ago to fix it.
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins also told the commissioners to use the person with legal expertise sitting right next to them.
“You’ve got your county attorney sitting there,” said Hopkins.
The last thing Hopkins said was a caution of sorts about patching roofs.
“These roof jobs end up being a lot more expensive than you think they would be,” said Hopkins.