Take the time to check the cost

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

It is no small matter that Osage County commissioners have agreed to the construction of a new administration building, or courthouse annex, financed with Use Tax revenues.

The building is a much-needed resource, and it is a relief that increasing flows of Use Tax revenues from online commerce will allow the commissioners to avoid having to call a potentially difficult and divisive tax election.

The project is a good one that should go forward, but county officials and residents should be careful to control the overall cost. The price tag for the new building is $10.75 million; however, county commissioners indicated last week that they would earmark another $4 million to cover related work, such as improvements to the existing courthouse. The $4 million is to come out of federal COVID-19 relief money.

This is a development worthy of at least a raised eyebrow. The size of the overall project is starting to creep up, and resources are being committed that, arguably, should be used for something other than facilities improvements.

If that is not enough to get your attention, consider that County Assessor Ed Quinton Jr. says he thinks the preliminary plans and cost figures for the new courthouse annex indicate the building may be overpriced.

I know Quinton well enough to tell you that he’s not a politically motivated bomb thrower. He’s not trying to use his influence to derail a much-needed public project. Rather, he is a civic-minded officeholder who pays taxes himself and would like to see taxpayer resources used to their maximum potential effect.

Quinton thinks the commissioners should hold a meeting in which they review cost figures for the project in detail, with a view toward economizing. I think that is a good idea.

It would be good for public confidence in the project for county commissioners to call a special meeting to review plans and ask probing questions about projected expenses. Such a meeting should be held on a night or a Saturday to allow maximum public participation.

The commissioners should want high attendance, particularly on the part of builders and real estate professionals, who have knowledge that could lead to productive questioning and discussion.

This county facilities project is a once-in-a-lifetime effort. It is imperative that county officials get the details right, to include driving a hard bargain about per-square-foot investment of resources.

In the long run, Osage County cannot afford for any funds available to it to be spent unnecessarily. All of the money involved is, in some way, taxpayer money. It should go without saying that such funds must be spent with great care. Steps should be taken to make sure that residents don't look back 10 years from now with regret, that they got a nice, pretty set of buildings out of the effort but the price was higher than it should have been.