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Nathan Welton
The Tribune
April 26, 2005

You bought some things lately that you probably didn't know about.

A digital audio recorder. A few $2,375 LCD touch panel displays. About 200 aluminum signs for more than $100,000.

It's all in the newly opened County Government Center, with its sparkly, modern accents and its $41.2 million price.

The building should eliminate some $575,000 per year in office rent and give staff an additional 60,000 square feet of space, say county officials. It should also accommodate government growth into 2030.

The Tribune recently toured the new building and reviewed various purchasing documents to analyze the facility's costs. Those include a $360,000 audio-visual system and a $155,000 private elevator for the supervisors and staff.

Delivered seven months late and $1.5 million over budget, the building's still at the center of negotiations between contractors and county officials. Kajima Construction says the tardiness was because of change orders issued by the county, while the county claims Kajima is just late.

Given the circumstances, however, county officials are pleased that the financial overrun isn't worse.

"We had a budget of about $40 million, and we spent almost $6 million cleaning the site up -- and that was unanticipated," said project manager Greg MacDougall, referring to a $5.8 million removal of lead-contaminated soil. "So going over by $1.5 million? We feel pretty good about that."

Officials say the new center, which will consolidate departments scattered around town into one office, will be worth the money and effort.

"This is a building that we own, versus one we're leasing, with ever-increasing lease costs," said County Administrator David Edge. "It's like with homeowners: It's better to own than rent."


The Clerk-Recorder's Office has already moved in, while the personnel office and treasurer are moving in this weekend.

If all goes to plan, the first supervisors' hearing in the new chamber will occur on May 24.

The semi-detached, circular arena seats about 120 people in movie-theater-style chairs, and it's wheelchair accessible.

Technicians are still installing a long list of audio and visual equipment; with installation, the bill should top $360,000.

In the old supervisors' chamber, board members would have to look off to either side of the room to see various staff presentations, such as land-use planning maps, projected on the wall.

Now, the supervisors won't have to turn their heads. They each can simply glance down.

Originally, each supervisor was supposed to have a personal, 15-inch, $1,800 LCD monitor built into the dais in front of their seats, but those were down-sized slightly. The new costs and sizes aren't yet known.

Instead of the two wall-mounted projection screens in the old building, there will be only one, hanging behind the supervisors. The county bought a ceiling-mounted projector for $8,625, and then paid $1,750 for a lens that could beam images far enough across the room to reach the screen.

Citizens offering public comment will no longer have to judge the length of their testimony on green, yellow and red lights counting down from a set number of minutes. Instead, they can look at a 6-inch, $2,375 touch panel on their lecterns to see how much time they have left to talk.

The unit will also let speakers control their video presentations, MacDougall said.

Controlling the various gizmos in the room will be the responsibility of the board clerk, who will have a $4,000 touch-panel screen.


The county didn't have enough money to pay for public art, but the walls are not entirely bare.

Six tiny, wall-mounted LCD consoles called RoomWizards are spread throughout the buildings. Their back-lit screens will soon be glowing when they're powered on in the next few weeks.

The units, each costing $2,050, sit next to the doors of various rooms to help county officials manage meetings.

The system links all the consoles together and to each employee's computer. When people need a room, they can open their electronic datebooks and find out which ones are available.

It's touted as a "corporate calendaring system" on the RoomWizard Web site.

The consoles come complete with a touch screen that will display the time of the meetings, who's invited, and what invitees need to bring with them. The system will also allow users to pick a room with, say, teleconferencing capability.

The RoomWizards even have bright red and green lights on them to indicate which meeting spaces are being used.

County officials say the system will reduce the amount of time, hassle and money associated with finding open meeting rooms for the county's 2,400 employees.

Taxpayer cost: $12,300.


Privacy glass around the upper-floor offices keeps prying eyes from peering in from the atrium, and chemicals have etched the ground floor's concrete slabs with worn-looking browns and greens.

"It's a durable, hard finish," MacDougall said, "easy to keep clean."

Heavy planters, hauled up by cranes, bedeck the rooftop patios.

More than 200 sleek aluminum signs adorn the walls, announcing everything from room names to information desks to the various county departments.

The total for them was $108,000, which means that the average cost per sign -- ranging from the 17-foot-long banner above the main entrance to the small placards outside of the bathrooms -- was about $500.

The board members and county staff have a private elevator, which added an additional $155,000 to the price of the building. They also have private restrooms next to the elevator, a private balcony linking their offices together and a private meeting room for closed-session hearings.

Beneath the building's floors lie some 16 inches of dead space, between the concrete base of each level and the carpeted layer on which people walk.

Night air circulates there and cools the concrete slabs -- which, in turn, cool the air during the day. This natural air conditioning should save an estimated $60,000 per year in electricity costs, MacDougall said.

"The building was built to be as green as possible under our budget constraints," said Assistant County Administrator Jim Grant.

Additional savings should come from sun shades installed above the building's many windows, he said, which are positioned to be as energy efficient as possible.

The numerous windows in the building will let in ambient light and reduce electrical demand, and they're coated with a material that keeps heat out in the summer and retains it in the winter.

Builders also saved an estimated $250,000 when they elected to buy furniture that's been refinished and reupholstered.


According to Steve Keil, legislative coordinator with the California State Association of Counties, San Luis Obispo isn't the only place in the state building a new government center.

Solono County officials finished moving into their new, $114 million, 300,000-square-foot building last month. With interest, the building cost the county some $220 million -- but that doesn't bother Supervisor Duane Kromm.

"Doesn't it make sense to do it all in one shot when building costs and interest rates are low?" he asked. "The answer in my view is yes."

San Luis Obispo County, thanks to the new offices, won't have to spend $575,000 in annual lease fees to rent out downtown office space.

After adjusting for rising rent costs, that equates to a savings of $15.5 million over the next 20 years.

However, over that same period of time it will cost about $30 million to pay off the $20 million bond issued for the project.

"We're consolidating all the departments together, and what we're gaining is more room -- which we needed in the first place -- as well as room for growth," Grant said. "This should be able to handle all our needs for the next 20 to 25 years."

The 90,000-square-foot center has about three times as much space as all the office space currently leased by the county.

Aside from the bond, the county paid for about half of the project with cash from construction reserve funds, which came from general fund revenues -- property and general taxes.

"We knew we were going to do something, so they've been squirreling away money," MacDougall said.

Right now, there's still about $18 million in various construction-related reserves for future projects, $4 million of which came from developers to pay for growth-related construction, such as Sheriff's Department substations.

The totals will decrease as the county further invests in the former General Hospital building or the North County Regional Center.

Grant said he expects the county will be able to build up the reserves over the next 10 to 15 years for any new construction projects that might arise.

The county's coffers might also grow if its lawyers are able to negotiate settlements with its insurers and Kajima Construction for unexpected costs relating to the facility, such as the removal of the lead-contaminated soil.