Traverse City News and Events

County Commissioners Raise Questions About Senior Center

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 20, 2022

Grand Traverse County commissioners Wednesday raised questions about the design and escalating price tag of the planned new Traverse City Senior Center – though most said they believed completing the project was important and at least some were willing to consider using county American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help close the funding gap.

Architect Ray Kendra of Environment Architects appeared before commissioners to review the latest design and price tag for the new Senior Center, now estimated to cost over $10 million. The presentation was similar to one Kendra gave to area seniors at a public open house and to Traverse City commissioners in September. Kendra explained at those meetings – and to county commissioners Wednesday – that rising material and construction costs are responsible for the rising price tag of the project, which was originally estimated at $7 million in 2020. Michigan legislators recently approved $7 million in funding for the rebuild, but that will still leave a likely funding gap – possibly $3 million or more – under the current design and price tag.

The new facility will be approximately three times bigger than the current one, growing from 6,000 to 18,000 square feet (including indoor and covered outdoor spaces). Kendra said parking will slightly increase from 65 to 69 spaces, with the biggest change being that the building will be moved to the northeast, opening up views of Grand Traverse Bay. The location of the tennis courts will also shift on the property. Assuming funding is secured, Kendra said the plan is for the project team to submit a planned unit development (PUD) application – or a zoning plan tailored to a specific property – next week to the city for the project, going through the review and approval process this fall. Construction drawings will follow in early 2023, with the project going out to bid in May and construction beginning next summer after the National Cherry Festival – likely early August. The new building will take 12-14 months to complete, Kendra estimated.

Questions over how to fund the rebuild of the Senior Center – which is owned by the city but operated by the county under the Grand Traverse County Senior Network – has been a sticking point between city and county officials for years. That tension reared its head again Wednesday, with some commissioners pushing back on the idea Grand Traverse County should be responsible for closing the funding gap. At a recent meeting, city commissioners indicated their willingness to put up to $500,000 of the city’s $1.65 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward the Senior Center rebuild. City staff also recommended applying for up to $2 million in funding from Grand Traverse County’s $18.2 million in ARPA funds for the rebuild. Applications for county ARPA funding are due October 31.

County Commissioner Brad Jewett cautioned Wednesday that the board doesn’t “know where that (ARPA) money is going yet.” He suggested that city leaders look at “downsizing this building” to make it fall within the $7 million awarded by the state. Commissioner Ron Clous also said he was “disappointed we have this in front of us” with a price tag of over $10 million. Clous, who has a residential construction company, questioned the narrative that costs have risen so quickly as to account for a rise from $7 million to $10 million in two years. However, Kendra cautioned against comparing residential to commercial construction and said he believed the initial estimate had itself been low. Kendra noted changes could be made to the building design – using different materials, eliminating amenities like covered drop-off areas and green infrastructure – to make the project less expensive. However, he said officials should “look at both the initial cost as well as the life cycle cost” of making those changes, “especially for a public building” designed to serve the community for decades to come.

Commissioner Betsy Coffia reminded commissioners that the $7 million in current funding is coming from the state, not the county, and that ARPA funds are similarly coming from the federal government. The county itself has only committed $250,000 from its general fund for the rebuild, Coffia said, calling it a “pretty small amount compared to the total.” Coffia said she wasn’t “interested in going cheap” on area seniors, saying the community should “have a nice facility that’s something we can be proud of.” Commissioner Bryce Hundley also noted that the Senior Center topped the list of priorities in a public survey of how county ARPA dollars should be spent. “It's one of the main projects in the county for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Commissioner Penny Morris said she didn’t believe the board should be characterized as being “anti” Senior Center simply for raising questions about the project. She said commissioners also needed to consider other pressing priorities for spending, such as addressing the region’s housing crisis. “We have people who can’t find housing, so I think for us to just say, ‘Yes, throw all the money at it’ can also be perceived as irresponsible by some,” she said. However, Morris also said the Senior Center rebuild is “definitely a project our seniors have waited a long time for, and they shouldn’t have to wait much longer.” Chair Rob Hentschel said that while commissioners “definitely have some concerns” with the project, he believed “this board is still willing to participate with the city” in making it happen. Hentschel added that while there were “no promises,” he believed State Senator Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) and other representatives are working behind the scenes to see if more state funding can be secured for the rebuild.

Also at Wednesday’s county commission meeting…
> Commissioners voted to raise the county’s minimum unassigned fund balance from 25 to 30 percent. Staff told commissioners the move will help ensure the county has more cash reserves on hand, which will require the county to borrow less money for projects and also better weather rough economic periods. County Administrator Nate Alger said increasing the fund balance now is “wise” given there could be “significant economic challenges” ahead in 2023 and 2024.

> Commissioners approved a staff request to issue a request-for-proposals (RFP) to find new civil counsel for the county. The county prosecutor’s office currently provides legal advice to the county, but that department is “challenged in managing the obligation of reviewing and prosecuting increasingly challenging criminal cases,” Alger wrote to the board. Hiring outside counsel would also provide a more objective view of county issues and allow the county to retain a firm with municipal experience, Alger said. The prosecutor’s office will still handle some services if a new firm is hired, such as processing FOIA requests, according to the proposal.

> Commissioners approved entering into a $324,429 contract – or $54,071.50 for six years – with EagleView to complete oblique and ortho aerial imagery surveys of Grand Traverse County. Two flights will be flown three years apart, in 2023 and 2026. Updated aerial images are particularly important for the county’s GIS/Equalization and 911/public safety departments. The contract also provides a cost savings opportunity for the city and local townships by allowing those units of government to cost-share with the county on the contract instead of continuing their own individual contracts with EagleView.

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