County commissioners received a first look Thursday at the proposed designs for the county’s new $36.8 million 911 Emergency Services Center to be built in North Cornwall Township.
The commissioners, at their first regularly scheduled meeting of the new year, also held the formal organizational meeting for 2021.
The price tag for the project, which is down from an earlier announced figure of $40 million, does not include cost estimates to replace the antiquated radio communications system, according to Bob Dowd, Director, Department of Emergency Services. Dowd added that he does not have an estimate on how much the new communications system will cost county taxpayers.
Dowd said the new 911 facility will consist of two buildings that will be the “core” of public safety in Lebanon County, housing the county’s 911 operations, emergency management operational components and public safety technological services.
“The facility is being meticulously designed and programmed to meet the complex requirements of the public safety programs it is intended to house,” Dowd said. “Efficient layouts and the use of durable and sustainable materials will support the residents of Lebanon County for decades to come.”
Dowd added that the buildings, set to be constructed on nearly 10.5 acres at 1821 Cornwall Road that was purchased by the county last October for $1.9 million, will provide operational services to the county through any man-made or natural disasters that may occur.
“Non-critical portions of the building are still built to robust standard, but however a much more cost-effective construction,” said Dowd. “A majority of the building is designed to be malleable and accommodate future needs. Our goal is not to have to change the footprint of the building for decades, much rather be able to move walls and work with those malleable spaces.”
The design also includes the ability to accommodate other Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in cooperation and in future partnership with other emergency service providers.
“The bottom line is that public safety, particularly 911, is very, very expensive,” Dowd said. “What’s expensive about it is the overhead that comes with it and the systems required to make it redundant and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week without gaps. The only way to lower the cost is by reducing overhead, and the way we do that is by sharing with other PSAPs.”
Dowd added that the new 911 center will serve as Lebanon County’s primary PSAP, with the current 911 center serving as a back-up until the county is able to finalize a PSAP partnership that will lower overhead costs.
The two proposed structures are a primary building consisting of 41,600 square feet and an operations and a storage building at 18,412 square feet.
“The buildings are positioned to best utilize the 10.5 acre lot we recently purchased in North Cornwall Township and positioned in such a way to maintain the appropriate setbacks for a building like this,” Dowd said. “The site will also contain a First Responders Memorial that will be positioned right in front of the building (facing the main parking lot).”
The new center will also provide training space for the daily operational use of those training facilities for all emergency services personnel in Lebanon County and serve as the base for the continuity of county government should an emergency render current county government facilities uninhabitable.
Concerning construction costs associated with the two buildings, Dowd noted that, as a public entity, the county must pay prevailing wages, which is significant because it adds about 25 percent to overall construction costs.
“Because of the hard work of the design team, we’ll still be able to do this project at a significantly lower cost compared to other facilities that are of similar construction,” Dowd said. “Those range anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per square foot. This project is estimated to be about $460 per square foot.”
Ned Pelger, President, Pelger Engineering & Construction, Litiz, said the cost breakdown consists of: $28 million for construction; $4 million for technology, furnishings, fixtures and equipment; $3.29 million for design, construction management and soft costs; and $1..65 million for a contingency budget to address any unexpected expenses.
“We started this with an approximate budget of about $40 million and we’ve been chipping down on it and my thought is we’ll continue to chip down on it and come up with a lower cost project than that,” Pelger said.
In noting this will be the most expensive project in the county’s history, Jamie Wolgemuth, chief clerk/county administrator, said the county is financially stable for several reasons as it prepares to fund the project.
He noted the county has received an excellent credit rating over the past five years from the rating agency Standard and Poor’s and added the timing of the project is fortuitous.
“We did have funds on hand to secure the land,” Wolgemuth said. “The rest of the funds will come from borrowing. Borrowing will be a little easier to manage since a good bit of the county’s debt will be retired at the same time. So it will be old debt out, new debt in. Not new debt on top of old debt.”
Wolgemuth said the county will not seek funding until the bids are received, which should be late summer to early fall. Later, Pelger said he’d like to see bids back by mid-summer so that work can begin in September, which would help lower construction costs.
“The design team will put all bids into bid documents,” Wolgemuth siad. “Once the bids are in, we’ll have a solid idea of the project [costs]. And we won’t borrow any money until we know how much the project is going to cost.”
Construction, which is planned to begin this fall, would run for 15 months with a planned launch date of the new center in late 2022 or early 2023, which will coincide with the onset of interest and principal payments on the loan.
After the presentation, commissioner chairman Robert Phillips said that while the cost of the project is huge, it is in line with other comparable projects, including the recently announced elementary school in the Northern Lebanon School District, which he said is projected to be around $40 million. Phillips added that school will serve a small area with the district while the 911 Center will benefit all Lebanon Countians.
Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz echoed Dowd’s assessment about the necessity of a new center that is compliant with state mandates.
“It is a really, really big step but a really, really necessary step,” Litz said. “It is overdue, and that is something PEMA’s (Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency) been telling us for a long time. As Bob has pointed out, this is critical infrastructure for the county.”
In other county business during the first meeting of the new fiscal and calendar year, the board reorganized various county departments, including positions on the board.
Commissioner Phillips was re-elected chairman, Bill Ames is vice chairman and Litz, secretary. All meetings, which are open to the public and currently available via Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic, will continue to be held on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Wolgemuth was renamed chief clerk/county administrator and Michael Anderson retained his position as chief clerk of the county’s election bureau.
A special meeting to adopt the 2022 budget, which is traditionally held 20 days after the budget is announced and open for public review, is scheduled for Thursday, December 23.
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. Ames Home Services is a current advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.