BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – It’s very much a hurry-up and wait as the county tries to find funding to build on property being donated to the county by the Glen Meller family.
At Monday’s Lee County Board of Supervisors’ meeting, Supervisor Garry Seyb gave an update on where the county is at in planning for possible construction on the facility on the west end of town where the Iowan Motel used to operate.
Some materials from the site have been removed and Glen Meller said the structure on the property should be down in the next three to four weeks. The Meller family has agreed in principal to donate the property as long as it used for public purposes by the county.
Seyb said it’s in the county’s best interest to get a master plan of what the roughly 9.5 acres can look like going forward.
“We’re in the midst of creating a master plan with Carl A. Nelson,” he said. “Rather than just putting a building up in the middle of the property, we’re looking at doing master planning so the property can best be utilized in the future.”
Seyb said there are several ideas up in the air including consolidating county services on that property as part of the planning. County Supervisor Matt Pflug said it appeared Seyb was going down the road of consolidating courthouses, to which Seyb said is not part of the conversation.
“We could potentially put services out there and I’m not talking about courthouses. I want to put that out right away. I am not talking about courthouses,” he said.
“I am talking about services here that are in the county building, but that would still be additional cost to the taxpayers.”
As another example, Seyb said he’s had talks with Empowering Families coordinator Breanna Kramer-Reisberg who believes that a versatile office space could be beneficial to many other advocacy groups including Domestic Violence Prevention, Rape Victims groups, and even a potential precharge program for those looking for help with mental health and drug dependency issues.
“As we’re all aware, Lee County is reportedly dead last in child neglect reporting in the state – 99 out of 99 counties, and I believe we’re 94 out of 99 in child abuse reports,” Seyb said.
“As we define the potential scope of the project, we’ve had conversations of a collaborative nature with officials of several groups, including Southeast Iowa Community Action Network around additional facility space, services, and expansion,” Seyb said.
He said federal officials with Community Action, which coordinates Head Start programming, said a partnership is doable, but more specifics on the project would have to come forward.
Seyb said conversations are currently underway with local and state elected officials and respective staffs as to whether or not a one-time funding mechanism could be found that would help offset the costs of what he said is being described as a one-stop shop for health care and child advocacy efforts in Lee County.
Seyb provided a list of talking points to supervisors that outlined the county’s current America Rescue Plan Act funding obligations including $1.95 million to Southeast Iowa Regional Economic & Port Authority that spurred a $5.5 million broadband improvement in Lee County.
“You allocated 30% of the county’s ARPA funding to broadband improvements and I don’t think you could have found a better project,” said Lee County ARPA fund administrator Chuck Vandenberg.
The county has also obligated about another half million combined to ARPA administration over five years, digitizing county records, and a splash pad at KPlay in Keokuk. Seyb said that leaves about $4 million in unobligated funding for the health department/EMS construction, housing, child care, and tourism.
Vandenberg said a Community Development Block Grant from the state is also being investigated by Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission that could represent an additional $600,000 toward the health department/EMS project.
Seyb said current estimates for the construction are at about $400 per square foot which, on a 12,000 square foot facility that was proposed by the county in 2016, would be about $4.8 million, not including a drive-thru vaccination facility and the EMS ambulance bay.
“With all the funding we have, we’re still not there yet,” Seyb said.
Additional funding streams could involve a general obligation bond to pay for the project with the bond offset by any grant funding, including future grants that could be secured.
The Meller property is currently in an Urban Renewal Area in Fort Madison, which opens up another avenue of funding where the county could bond without requiring a referendum, but a petition could be submitted to the county to force the issue in front of voters.
That petition would require signatures from a minimum of 10% of votes cast in the last presidential or gubernatorial election which was 2020. According to Lee County election archives, that would represent 1,674 signatures required on the petition.
Currently the county leases space at the former John Bennett Center at the old Iowa State Penitentiary for $7,000 per month. The county has been informed by the Department of Corrections that the lease will increase to $7,500 beginning in July.
The county’s ARPA committee has earmarked $2.4 million of the county’s $6.5 million toward the construction of a new health department/EMS bay.