Second of two parts.
The Lake sheriff's communications center is so crowded that many dispatchers can't roll their chairs back far enough from their desks to stand up.
They have to slither out sideways and clamber over one another to take a restroom break or have lunch. There is no room for more work stations, yet more cities are thinking of asking Sheriff Gary Borders to take over their dispatching operations.
Clearly, the communications center must be expanded.
An opportunity emerged after Lake commissioners considered that the county's round courthouse, where the makeshift emergency operations center is housed, has skylights that have leaked during heavy rains. The idea: combine communications and emergency operations for a more secure, efficient operation, both daily and during emergencies.
When Lake commissioners considered that the county's round courthouse in Tavares where the makeshift emergency operations center is located has skylights that have leaked during heavy rains, an opportunity emerged: combine communications and emergency operations for a more secure, efficient operation, both daily and during emergencies.
That's a short version of how the commissioners came to vote in March to build a new emergency operations center that would combine communications for the sheriff and the six cities for which he dispatches; dispatch for fire and ambulance services, which are in rented space in Mount Dora; and offices for the emergency operations folks, who don't have a real center.
The price tag for the building to be constructed near the judicial-center expansion is $9 million —$4.5 million of it from a state grant. Sweet. The other half is coming from sales taxes returned to the county by the state. That revenue stream holding its own, even in this economic downturn.
Already, the county has laid out $500,000, mostly to design the building, and is moving along with a domino chain of renovations that the moves will cause as other crowded operations move into the space being vacated.
So, why would Commissioner Sean Parks, the swing vote on the matter, now say that he wants to reconsider his decision and put the sales-tax money toward economic development, thereby wasting a half million already spent?
Who knows? Parks did not respond requests to explain his position.
Economies of scale
What is clear is that the commissioner didn't bother to look very deeply into the issue before throwing that explosive suggestion to his colleagues. Certainly, there were reasons back in March to vote against building an emergency operations center. The county does need a center, but was it No. 1 on the priority list nine months ago? Probably not. That would have been the time to vote no.
Now that taxpayer cash has been spent, backing out would be irresponsible, especially considering that the county wasted another $860,000 starting and then stopping an earlier project that included an emergency operations center four years ago. Is it really a good idea to fritter away $1.4 million on indecision?
Let's take a deeper look at what Lake really could save if Parks decides he wants to halt the project. Keep in mind that Lake taxpayers are getting an emergency operations center for half price — $4.5 million.
Now, factor in what the county would have to keep paying in rent if commissioners decide not to build the center. About $30,000 a year goes to climate-controlled, secure data storage that maintains all the county's official financial records, and another $17,000 a year is spent on rent for the ambulance service's communications center, which also handles countywide fire dispatch.
So, each year that the emergency operations center is not built, the county must figure nearly $50,000 in rent for operations things that would have been moved into the new building.
And then, there are the sheriff's problems.
Six cities contract with Borders' office for dispatch services, and several more have been exploring the possibility of the sheriff handling dispatch because he typically can provide it more cheaply, thanks to the economies of scale.
Right now, the sheriff could not take on any more cities because there is not enough room for any more work stations in dispatch, which is located in the sheriff's building behind the round courthouse.
Down the hall, the computer folks who run the sheriff's networks are sandwiched together in what amounts to an oversized closet with constantly humming, hot computer servers without backup in case of a power or air-conditioning failure. Such crowded operations are part of the domino effect of moves based on the construction of the emergency operations center.
But if it's not built, what might happen?
It would be convenient if other operations housed on the second floor of the 1962 building with dispatch could be moved and the communications center could expand right where it is. But that's not possible because the building is too cut up by elevators and pieces of walls patched together with skylights. Architects say it can't be configured to accommodate the complex radio and telephone systems of a communications center.
Borders' plan if the county ditches the emergency operations center is to move dispatch to the first floor of the same building — a pricey change that involves building a false floor and installing masses of complicated wiring in harnesses and trays in the space below the floor. Neither the sheriff nor the county knows for sure what that might cost, but renovations in that old building seem likely to rise easily above $1 million level. That would put a big dent in any "savings" the county might realize from killing the emergency operations project.
Part of the grand plan that hinges on the emergency operations construction is for the historic courthouse to be renovated for the sheriff's administration, professional standards, records and finance.
There had been roughly $2 million in the budget for renovations of the sheriff's building and historic courthouse combined. Renovation money for the sheriff's building disappeared, however, when the county discovered that the historic courthouse does not meet code in the areas of fire and air conditioning, said Kristian Swensen, county director of Facilities Development & Management.
'Ready for them decide'
The historic courthouse, constructed in 1923 in a neo-classical architectural style for $250,000, was last renovated 14 years ago at a cost of $3.5 million. It has been sitting empty since the tax collector and property appraiser moved out two years ago. (And, yes, taxpayers are still footing the light bill.)
Architectural plans for the historic courthouse are done, but Borders said that eliminating the emergency operations center and forcing the communications center to stay where it is would trigger changes in which operations he would move to the historic building. That means more architectural fees to change the design.
"We're just ready for them to decide," Borders said. "In the long term, putting all the public safety and communications under one roof is the best way to go. But we will work with what we have and continue to do a good job at it."
Lake County Emergency Medical Services could stay where it is, said Jim Judge, the executive director. EMS has a multiyear lease that can be extended, but Judge said the safety and efficiency benefits of all dispatch being in a single place shouldn't be discounted when making the decision.
So, instead of saving $4.5 million that could be spent on some economic development project Parks has yet to identify, the county might save, what, say, $2 million tops? No one knows for sure. And over several years, that savings would disappear as the county continues to pay nearly $50,000 a year in rent.
In the end, is it worth turning down a $9 million emergency operations center and wasting $500,000 to save a couple of million in the short run? It is not.
Commissioners made a decision in March, and now they have let the project get too far to stop it. In addition, when will a half-price deal like this one come along again? Never. Other commissioners need to stiffen their spines, ignore Parks' waffling and get the emergency operations center built.
Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlakeCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times