County Board OKs loan to health department, but not before a lengthy discussion

The Fayette County Health Department moved its staff from the basement of the Fayette County Courthouse and a building on North Fifth Street in Vandalia into a former residence 21 years ago.

Renovations were made to the home at 509 W. Edwards St. in order to prepare the building for the staff, and a number of subsequent renovations followed.

But the Illinois Attorney General has told the FCHD that the building in its current condition is no longer suitable for use as a public health department. It told Administrator Rhonda Andrews that she had until April of next year to either make substantial renovations to the building or move the department into another building.

It chose the latter, using its tax monies, funds generated through the services it provides and what Andrews termed “the precious little cash we have” to purchase the property in the 400 block of West Edwards Street that formerly housed Leo Brown Lumber.

But, in order for the health department to move into the main building on that eight-lot, 2.25-acre property, it has to make substantial renovations to the structure. To fund those improvements, the FCHD would have to take out a loan.

Last Thursday, the Fayette County Board approved a 10-year $400,000 loan to the department, but not until the matter was discussed at length.

The loan approved by the board, which carries a 3.4-percent interest rate, was recommended by the board’s finance committee. The interest rate is equal to that on the county’s certificates of deposit.

The loan was approved in an 11-3 vote, with Dan Barenfanger, Dean Bernhardt and Jeff Beckman casting dissenting votes. Voting for the loan were Chairman Steve Knebel, Lee Schaal, Jean Finley, Loy Staff, Joe Kelly, Greg Fulk, B.J. Wilhour, Troy Pattillo, Darrell Schaal, John Daniels Jr. and Glen Daniels.

During the lengthy discussion on the loan, the main opposition to the health department’s move was its choice of buildings.

“I think things went a little to fast,” Bernhardt said at the start of the discussion.

Knebel said that if the health department didn’t get a loan from the county, it would have to go to a financial institution.

“Can they go out on the market and get this money? Sure, they can,” Knebel said.

“We (finance committee) felt that, as a county and this being the county health department, would be a good deed gesture to show our support for the health department. We aren’t losing anything from this – it’s a loan,” he said. “We’ve got a secure 10-year note.

“I don’t think they moved too fast; I think they moved appropriately. I think they did what they had to do, and I support them,” Knebel said, adding that the county is helping the health department by providing a lower interest rate than what it could get on the open market.

The department had to either get another building or renovate the existing facility, he said, and to renovate the current FCHD home “would be a total, total waste of money.”

Darrell Schaal, who represent the county board on the Fayette County Board of Health, said, “They had to do something quickly, or we would not have a health department. We have not entered into this lightly. We’ve put a lot of time into this, we’ve had a lot of meetings.”

Knebel said he has “seen the quotes she got for other buildings” and the cost estimates for a new building, “and I think this is the best route for the money. There is no comparison.”

Wilhour said, “I’m of the opinion that we could do something new for about what they’re looking at.”

But Knebel clarified several times during the discussion that the loan is for renovating a building already purchased, not for the purchase of a building, particularly after board members questioned the building that had been purchased.

Barenfanger said he had gotten a number of phone calls from constituents, with concerns expressed about “the type of structure” purchased by the health department. “They were amazed at the amount of money you spent, when there are other buildings out there, steel structures that are much more compliant.”

Andrews responded by saying that she has been working on this issue since March, “and there’s almost nothing (in this county) that I didn’t look at.”

She said the health department has to meet a number of state and federal guidelines for its facility. “That’s why it’s so expensive.

“To say that we could build a structure (for the same amount) isn’t true – it isn’t even in the same ballpark. I did all of the research I could to get the best deal for the health department I could,” Andrews said.

“I wasn’t blessed with a lot of cash. I have a very small amount of money that I had to work with,” she said.

Andrews said that those who say a new building for a comparable amount don’t take the state and federal guidelines into consideration. She said Bond County is paying $154 per square foot to build a new home, and Jackson County’s new home is costing $141 per square foot.

In response to claims that the FCHD could have moved into some other building, Andrew said, “I looked at those other buildings that you (Barenfanger) are talking about.”

She said the lease prices for two available buildings in Vandalia were $9,000 and $10,000, “and those (prices) are probably from the same people that called you.

“That would be a gross injustice to the taxpayers,” Andrews said. “I was as conservative as I could be.”

Knebel also received phone calls from at least one building owner offering to lease facilities. “If they were so concerned about this, they would have made a better deal when Rhonda was looking at their building.

“The building is bought,” Knebel said. “Let’s move forward.”

In supporting the action, Lee Schaal, the chairman of the finance committee, said, “We not giving them money – we’re loaning money. This is the Fayette County Health Department.

“This does not hurt the county,” he said. “They’ve got a deal going where we’ve got interest money coming in.”

The timing of the loan request was then broached again, this time by Beckman. “I think this is a little after the fact. They should have come (to us) before they bought the building.”

Knebel said the idea of a loan was suggested by the county’s auditor after the finance committee rejected Andrews’ request for a yearly increase in the health department’s budgeted funds from the county.

Schaal said the county dropped the health department’s budgeted funds from $116,000 to $50,000 two years ago, and that the department had requested an additional $127,000 annually.

Bernhardt said, “I don’t think there’s any problem loaning them money. My problem is loaning some money on a building like that.”

Barenfanger agreed, saying that the Leo Brown building is essentially a pole-barn structure. “Pole barns are made for… barns.”

Andrews said the building is constructed on a concrete slab foundation. “That’s why I don’t understand why we are talking about a pole barn.”

When Bernhardt questioned the location, Andrews said. “It’s right across the street from where we are now.”

The FCHD clients “know where we are, they can walk to where we are now,” she said, adding that property on the north end of Vandalia “was more expensive.”

Knebel agreed with Andrews on the location issue. “There’s nothing wrong with the location, folks. They’ve been there for a long time, and why, all of a sudden, is this such a bad location?”

Bernhardt again said he felt that construction of a new building should have been pursued. “I feel like with the money we’re spending, we could put up a nice concrete building.”

Darrell Schaal responded to that claim, saying, “For the amount of building that they need, it would have cost $2 million. For the money the health department has, this was the best choice.”

Dr. Brad Dunn, president of the Fayette County Board of Health, agreed with Schaal.

A contractor could build the health department a new home, Dunn said, if it were willing “to eat $500,000 themselves.

“We do not have the cash flow or the cash reserves to accommodate a $1.5-million new building, or even a $1.3-million building, on a lot that’s worth $200,000 that we would have to go out and purchase,” Dunn said.

Wilhour said he believes that the county cannot loan the money without some specific guidelines.

“We need to have a very defined standard on what we’re doing,” he said.

Knebel said Fayette County State’s Attorney Steve Friedel would be involved in the legalities of the loan.

After the board approved the loan, it also approved a request for the exemption of the health department’s $1,141.56 taxes payable in 2009.

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