About 20 percent of the Lebanon County municipal building remains unoccupied nearly two years after the city of Lebanon sold its share to the county for $2.25 million. 

The Lebanon County Municipal Building, as seen from above. (Will Trostel)

“This is going slower than I anticipated,” said county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth about utilizing the space the county purchased from the city. “Some of it has been due to time (needed) and some of it has been the difficulty of working within the space and to what extent the renovations can or will be. In the meantime, there is space that we are utilizing.”

Wolgemuth said the district attorney’s office is now occupying additional space on the ground floor since the city moved, Children and Youth Services is using space on the first floor, and the old city council chambers are where meetings are conducted and filled during elections for canvassing and ballot computations. 

Across the hall from the former city chambers on the second floor, the county has placed the high-speed ballot counter machine in the city clerk’s old office. That machine requires a chunk of real estate as it measures over 20 feet. And in that same area, the county’s new full-time solicitor, Matt Bugli, moved into the city mayor’s old office after he was hired in December.

“All of that will shuffle, reshuffle at some point,” said Wolgemuth. “There’s no question that voters and elections have evolved to take a lot of space in those couple of months in the spring and the fall when they’re doing canvassing and preparing for Election Day.” 

Election changes that occurred through the implementation of Act 77 during the pandemic have necessitated growth within the voter registration/election department, added Wolgemuth. 

“Those rooms are full of people and tables on Election Day,” he said. “Some of that is flexible space like the former city council’s chamber, but some of it has to be dedicated space. I mean, we’ve got to keep secure space and there are a couple of vaults over there that we plan to utilize. So elections have evolved to need more real estate, more square footage.” 

LebTown asked Wolgemuth about efficiency gains and where better efficiency can be gained given cramped spaces in certain departments that are experiencing growing pains.

“Elections, for example, their space has been inadequate,” said Wolgemuth. “As more people have used mail-in ballots or have come here … to vote in person in the days before the election, they get a ballot but there is nowhere for them to go unless they sit in the hallway. The voter office of years gone by, where you didn’t have traffic at a voter office because you administered an election and everything happened on election day at the polls (is gone). Today much more happens in the elections office on Election Day.” 

Currently located on the second floor of the county building on 8th Street in Lebanon, the many changes to how elections are administered may lead to voter registration being moved down one flight to the first floor. (Wolgemuth declined to share his department occupancy blueprints with LebTown since he wants official announcements to come from county officials to department directors and not via the press.)

“If we do put it (voter registration) down on the first floor, it will be more accessible to people who don’t have to go to a different floor because it will be right there, right down the hall,” added Wolgemuth. “In that regard, there’s some efficiency but I don’t think that efficiency for interaction with the public was one of our biggest goals. One of our biggest goals is that we have some departments that are just very cramped. Deputy sheriffs are occupying a lot of shared space that isn’t efficient for them.”

Tight quarters in the sheriff’s department were evident during a recent interview LebTown conducted with county sheriff Jeffrie Marley Jr., about the department’s virtual reality training program for county sheriff deputies. LebTown observed that space is at a premium as some department employees worked side-by-side.

 Wolgemuth said Children & Youth Services and the DA’s office are also experiencing growing pains and require more space. 

“We’ve had to stretch out more for Children and Youth since the demand for those services has been and is still growing as the state adds mandates that will require the department to expand,” he said. “The DA’s office needs some more elbow room and also secure space for processing vehicles and such after a crime scene.” 

The DA’s office currently located on the ground floor, is slated for relocation. Wolgemuth added the county’s Human Resources Department, which currently resides in separate areas, will be merged. 

“The intent is to move the DA’s office,” said Wolgemuth. “Options A, B and C of how the space is going to look and what’s going to drive the final decisions on those is where and how we can move some walls, keep some walls, and that’s what’s been posing the challenges. This is a 60-year-old going on 70-year-old building.”

Wolgemuth noted the county’s aging, probation, Community Action Partnership and mental health departments are also experiencing client growth. In most cases, however, those offices are located off campus and will not be brought in-house at the county building.

“Most are content where they are and it might make it more difficult for their consumers to use that department’s services,” said Woglemuth when asked why they will remain static. 

“Department of Aging clients and mental health clients who come in for case or clinical visits are better served elsewhere, so not everything has to be at the courthouse. The courts and certainly the property-related and court records all need to be under the same roof. The prothonotary and Recorder of Deeds offices need to be under this roof. But social services, they are better served by being standalone buildings.” 

Wolgemuth added the county owns most of those buildings and makes renovations to them as needed and as county capital improvement funds are available for those projects.  

Read More: Supply issues affecting county agency facelift  

The two remaining and biggest spaces that are currently unoccupied are the former city police department and the city treasurer’s office, both located on the first floor. There are various contributing factors for why those spaces – and especially the police department’s – remain vacant. 

Located on the first floor of the county municipal building, the former city’s treasurer’s office and the former city police department offices are two of the largest areas that remain vacant several years after the county moved downtown. County officials cite numerous reasons the space is still unused. (James Mentzer)

“The capacity of the electrical system is not up to today’s demands, and there are places around the entire building where there is fire-proofing asbestos above the ceiling that is contained, but if you are going to go in and disturb things to rewire or to add technology cabling, that (asbestos) has to be dealt with,” said Wolgemuth. 

Potential asbestos abatement is a top concern from a health and cost perspective. 

Wolgemuth said any necessary asbestos abatement would happen in the hours when county offices are closed to ensure the county worker safety, and noted asbestos abatement cost was a “wild card number” at this point.

While asbestos abatement is a pending decision, there’s a strong possibility that it will remain undisturbed and, therefore, not harmful since its cancer-causing fibers can’t become airborne if untouched. Wolgemuth noted he was hesitant to address this issue with LebTown but emphasized that county workers will not be exposed if the asbestos is eventually removed.

“I have no reason to believe the building is unsafe or a sick building or anything like that,” said Wolgemuth. “We’ve never had a problem and we’ve been very transparent about that.”

Placing drop ceilings in rooms to run technology wiring as part of building renovations is one option under consideration that will allow the asbestos to remain untouched. (Wolgemuth said asbestos was used many years ago as a fire retardant and was placed between floors in the county building to lessen property damage and to prevent fire from spreading from one level of the building to the next. There’s also some asbestos in some of the floor tiles.)  

Another factor is the current condition of the former city police department – which is the most visible open area to visitors since it occupies a large section of the first floor. The occupancy rate of the county building sits at about 80 percent, according to Wolgemuth.   

“The city police department is going to take a lot of work and that’s why we don’t have anything in there at this point,” he said. “That, by far, needs the most attention and is not somewhere I am going to put someone temporarily while we sort things out. Most of the other space I can and have done that.”

Wolgemuth said that particular space, which includes the city’s former police car garage on the south end of the building, is the most dilapidated.

“If you look down the hall on the first floor and you see a dark city police department, you should remember that space had one purpose: it was a 24/7 operation for 60 years and that took its toll. That space needs work, and it is going to be the biggest challenge by far,” Wolgemuth added.

County commissioner and board chairman Bob Phillips echoed Wolgemuth’s concerns about the former city police department.

“A lot of repairs are needed on the other side (of the building),” said Phillips. “The heating ducts are not working at all, and parts for that aren’t even available any longer. We also will have to put in drop ceilings because of the asbestos since there are ways to not have to abate it.”   

Wolgemuth said county officials baked some costs of the bond issue it floated to finance the county’s new Department of Emergency Services’ 911 Center to cover those renovation expenses at the county building.

Wolgemuth told LebTown the county did a bond issue in December 2022 for $42.5 million to finance the 911 building – $40 million for the DES Center, including contingency, and another $2.25 million for the purchase of the city’s portion of the courthouse, leaving $250,000-plus of the unused portion of the DES Center contingency for renovations. 

The timing of the completion of the new 911 center is another contributor that has delayed renovations at the county building. 

The unforeseen delay in receiving critical infrastructure for the 911 Center has postponed the completion of that project, which has had a ripple effect on the launch of needed repairs at the county building. That’s because funding must be focused first on the 911 Center before it can be applied to renovations at the county building. 

Furthermore, space that will be gained once county dispatch moves to the new 911 Center is an unknown variable since the dispatchers are still using that portion of the county building for 911 operations. DES director Bob Dowd told LebTown that weeks of work remain before non-dispatch personnel can be moved to their new home.  

“We did allocate some money in the bond issue that was taken out for the Department of Emergency Services’ new 911 Center and there are some capital fund improvements that we have set aside,” said Wolgemuth. “This has to happen in an orderly manner because there is a cost associated with that and there’s going to be a domino effect when one office (at the county building) moves from one location to another.” 

Concerning the county municipal building, Phillips does not see the project as taking too long to complete. 

“The simple answer is we want to get it right the first time,” said Phillips. “We’ve asked all departments to assess their needs. All of that had to be gathered and that did take some time. It will be implemented in the best interest of the departments that are involved and the constituents that are using those departments, so those are all being addressed. I am comfortable with the time it is taking.” 

Commissioner Mike Kuhn concurs with Phillips.

“There’s no deadline for completion, but we do want to create a better work environment for our departments,” said Kuhn. “I’d rather we take our time and get it right and not move people twice.  When appointed (to serve the remaining term of former commissioner Bill Ames), I thought it would be nice if we could create a nice and beautiful and more accessible entrance.” 

Portions of the county building that are currently unoccupied need renovated before other county departments can utilize those spaces. (File photo)

While the county building is technically American with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible, it’s not easily entered by those individuals with disabilities, which was recently highlighted after the controversial permanent removal of the county’s mail-in ballot drop box for the upcoming election. Some county residents have questioned why the commissioners would make it harder for the disabled to deliver their ballots by removing the drop box.

The drop box, which was positioned at the foot of the stairs at the entrance to the county building, had been used for the past seven elections before the commissioners voted to end its use in future elections.

Read More: Opinions vary on use of drop box for mail-in ballots in Lebanon County 

Whether additional ADA-compliant renovations will be required at the county building due to other repairs occurring is unclear at this time.

“I don’t know yet,” said Wolgemuth. “As you know, when (the Department of Labor and Industry) reviews plans they may say, ‘Well, you are doing so much, you need to make some changes’ or ‘This is Di minimis and you don’t need to.’ I don’t know the answer yet but I don’t believe so.”

Wolgemuth said he understands the perception of the county’s inactivity on remodeling property it purchased two years ago.

“We purchased this and we haven’t utilized all of it yet, so the question from a taxpayer might be ‘What do you plan to do?’ So I understand that (concern),” he said.

Questions about this story? Suggestions for a future LebTown article? Reach our newsroom using this contact form and we’ll do our best to get back to you.

Support local journalism.

Cancel anytime.


🌟 Annual

Already a member? Login here

Free news isn’t cheap. If you value the journalism LebTown provides to the community, then help us make it sustainable by becoming a champion of local news. You can unlock additional coverage for the community by supporting our work with a one-time contribution, or joining as a monthly or annual member. You can cancel anytime.

James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


LebTown membership required to comment.

Already a member? Login here

Leave a comment

Your email address will be kept private.