PENDER COUNTY — Pender County Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) received approval from the board of commissioners Monday to move forward with the design-and-build process of a new facility.
“The foundation has been laid,” HHS director Carolyn Moser told commissioners at the meeting. “No pun intended.”
In 2019, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting was hired to develop a space-needs analysis and master plan for a new facility housing Pender County HHS and Department of Social Services (DSS), both of which are in need of more adequate room and updated amenities. The resulting proposal was released in October 2021 following a process drawn out by the pandemic, which included meeting with various employees, stakeholders and community members for input.
A final price is not yet known, but the building — to be constructed behind the current one on Walker Street in Burgaw — could cost up to $28 million. The proposed 17-acre site is already owned by the county and contains needed infrastructure, including water and sewer.
The master plan accommodates 20-year county growth with room for expansion and multifunctional shared space that can be utilized by other county departments, as well as the public after business hours.
“The county does not have a very large space to accommodate large numbers of 300 to 400 people, so we pushed to keep that in the design,” Moser said.
The proposed two-story building would be 70,000 square feet, down from an initial suggestion of 95,000, with DSS on the top floor and HHS on the ground level. Right now, 65 employees work in the 30-year-old, 20,000 square-foot HHS building. The DSS building is closer to 65 years old and designed to hold 60 employees but currently is the office for 100.
“Sometimes there are three or four employees in one office,” Moser explained. “We also have to remember the foot traffic that comes along with both facilities but especially DSS.”
The aging 19,000 square-foot DSS facility has also proven costly to repair and maintain. A recent plumbing fix cost $80,000 .
The shared space would be 40% HHS and 60% DSS and create “touchdown stations” for remote employees to have office space when needed to meet with clients. Right now there is only one work-from-home employee with HHS and about 20 with DSS.
“The pandemic taught us a lot of things and taught us there are a lot of positions that could be home-based,” Moser said, citing another reason for the decrease in initial square footage.
Training space also lacks in the current set up. The new building will include an area that can double as a family courtroom on occasion so judges can set up there temporarily. As is, many DSS employees spend their entire days at a courthouse, waiting to hear one case.
“Those staff members would just have to be called downstairs when needed to address their case,” Moser said.
Having the new building in close proximity to other facilities allows it to be multifunctional and adds to the county’s campus. Plus the old HHS building, once vacant, can be repurposed.
“I think we’ve almost got the best out of DSS,” commissioner chair David Piepmeyer said. “The sooner we can get into this facility, the more opportunity to move other places in need of finding a new home.”
As with similar projects around the county, the construction estimate pre-Covid is much lower than today’s reality. Moser said initially she was told roughly $300 per square foot, but that has increased to between $425 and $475 per square foot.
“It would be really hard to ‘guesstimate’ a cost, and maybe it will come down before we’re ready to build,” Moser said. “But that’s another thing we need to keep in the back of our mind: The cost could climb.”
Based on the updated square-footage estimate, the final price tag could range between $25 and $28 million.
There are funding sources in place to help offset costs, including nearly $4.5 million in an escrow account from Medicaid cost settlements.
“Health departments (before Medicaid Managed Care) received only a portion of Medicaid payments for services throughout the year and it was ‘cost-settled’ at the end of the year,” Moser wrote in an email to Port City Daily. “These excess revenues have been set aside in a separate account for a new building.”
The money saved on building maintenance at DSS could go toward the project, Moser explained. The county could also cut the annual $25,000 expense to rent a building on Walker Street for extra space.
Roughly half of its DSS program costs are covered by state or federal funding, Moser explained. This includes space, maintenance, utilities, as well as personnel.
“That can draw down yearly costs,” Moser said.
“[D]epreciation is of facility use, and expenses can be covered proportionally by other revenue streams besides the county,” she added.
Piepmeyer asked the county attorney if Covid money would be utilized toward the building.
“We have border counties moving in that direction and proceeding with utilization of Covid funds for that purpose,” Piepmeyer added. “I would very much like an answer to that.”
The approved process removes the bidding portion of the timeline to streamline the project. Typically, counties put out bid requests for design and construction,separately, but this would hire one firm to handle the new build all the way through.
“The design-build is the preferred method by many architects and engineering firms,” Moser said. “Most students coming out of architecture school are being trained on design-build with its faster timeline. The architect and engineer are in it together so there are never mixed messages; everyone is collaborating. There is indication it is a better fit for complex projects.”
Adding in the competitive bid process extends the timeline, she explained, and there is more of a likelihood for change orders, schedule delays and owner risk.
Piepmeyer also suggested hiring a project manager to be solely responsible for county-managed projects, including the new health department building and the recently approved new library.
“We need project managers to take ownership of these and drive them,” he said. “We can’t just wing this. It’s too much money and a significant amount of time taken away from other much needed personnel.”
Commissioner George Brown agreed and after discussion on whether they should hire in-house or contract someone, he said someone on staff would take more ownership.
“I want someone looking out for Pender County’s interest and Pender County’s money,” he said.
A project manager would take responsibility for outlining the plan, the schedule, cost estimates and keeping the director up to date.
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