February 20, 2023 - Another $5 million? Costs mount on fix for aging St. Louis County government HQ

February 20, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author/Byline: Kelsey Landis St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A1 | Section: News

CLAYTON — St. Louis County has already spent nearly $2 million to come up with ideas to replace or repair its aging government building. Now the county executive's administration wants to spend millions more on detailed plans.

The county paid $300,000 in 2020 to a group of consultants tasked with developing ideas. It has burned through $1.5 million more since last summer on a separate consultant. And County Executive Sam Page will ask the County Council on Tuesday to approve an additional $5.5 million for planning.

The first contract paid consultants to develop broad ideas. Subsequent spending is meant to do "a deeper dive into the current needs and help project the future needs" of St. Louis County, said Page spokesman Doug Moore.

"We're at the point where we need to decide — decide whether to do the improvements to this building, build a new building, or enter into some some sort of lease agreement and serve as a tenant," Moore said.

But the proposal hit a roadblock last week.

Citing the county's $41 million budget deficit, the council on Tuesday rejected a letter from Page asking council members to approve paying more to the consulting firm.

"I don't think there's a debate that the building needs to be replaced. Its useful life has expired," said Republican Councilman Ernie Trakas of unincorporated South County. "The question is the situation we're in. We're running a deficit, so every dime needs to be scrutinized."

The 52-year-old Lawrence K. Roos administration building — home to elected officials and several county departments — doesn't have a fire sprinkler system, an upgrade that would cost up to $50 million alone. But renovating the building, including doing $80 million in deferred maintenance, would cost upward of $200 million, according to the county public works department.

St. Louis County needs to bring the 190,000-square-foot tower up to code by 2028. If it doesn't, it faces fines or could be forced to vacate.

It's not a new problem. The county has needed a fix for the aging building since 2016, when the city of Clayton updated its fire codes to require all high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers.

There's no indication former County Executive Steve Stenger addressed the issue. It wasn't until 2019 that county officials began eyeing solutions.

The study paid for in 2020 suggested a range of options for the county: Upgrade the existing building, build a new one or split offices between a new building in Clayton and other satellite locations elsewhere in the county.

The county could also work with a developer to construct a new building that houses government employees along with other tenants, Moore said.

In July, the county hired global consultancy WSP, which has offices in St. Louis, to come up with and vet ideas for replacing or repairing the high-rise — including an assessment on satellite county properties. Councilman Mark Harder, a Republican from Ballwin, wants more details on the services WSP has provided and what they'd do with an additional $5.5 million.

"What's this money being used for? Are we actually doing something with bricks and mortar or are we just paying it out to consultants? What are we getting?" Harder said.

The county needs to spend more money on WSP's consulting services because it doesn't have the staff to develop detailed plans, said Transportation & Public Works Director Stephanie Leon Streeter.

Most of the work WSP has done for the county so far has gone toward defining solutions and identifying real estate, Page said in his letter to the council.

With the additional money, WSP would prepare information for project bidders, develop design and construction requirements, help obtain supplies and services, explore energy efficiency and provide construction oversight, Streeter said in the letter she sent to Page asking for the money.

Harder has asked the council to convene a special meeting to hear details from county staff on the proposal.

The council could decide on Tuesday.

"If the council members want to do that, we would certainly make staff available to lay this out," Moore said.

The county would likely pay for the renovations or rebuild through a bond issue, which voters would have to approve.

The county's general fund could later be reimbursed for consultant costs with money from the bonds, Streeter said.