Analog clocks hang from beige, concrete-block walls at the Rock County Heath Care Center, and discolored ceiling tiles hide old heating ducts.
In the summer, floor fans scattered down long, wide corridors suck cool air into stuffy offices.
The 47-year-old health care center was built to be the county’s psychiatric hospital. It has since been converted into an office building, with former patient rooms now serving as work space for about half of the county Department of Human Services, The Janesville Gazette reported.
Razing the dreary building and replacing it with a new structure is the top priority in the county’s sweeping facilities master plan, which a Milwaukee architecture firm unveiled in September. If the county follows the plan’s recommendations, the 222,000-square-foot complex would be torn down in coming years.
Recommendations in the master plan include a new human services building, a new jail Huber dormitory, expanding the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and Rock County Jail and making nearly $15 million in improvements at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.
Construction on a new human services facility is estimated to cost nearly $20 million. If the Rock County Board does not approve construction or relocation, it will need to spend about $10.5 million in equipment upgrades to keep the building operational, Rock County Facilities Management Director Brent Sutherland said.
Sutherland suggested the county start engineering on a new building next year, with construction possibly beginning in 2021. The building could be the first project in a $150 million overhaul of county facilities.
In interviews with The Gazette, several county board members lauded the plan and pointed to the health care center’s inefficiencies. Members signaled they could support borrowing money for a new human services building and said accruing debt could be more sustainable than investing in existing infrastructure.
“It (the master plan) is flexible and gives us a lot of versatility in terms of when we do things. I think that’s key to successful planning,” Rock County Board member Wes Davis said. “If we want to escape from aspects of it, we can. I think that’s a selling point for it.”
An entire floor of the health care center sits vacant. Timeworn ceiling tiles expose insulation and air ducts. Each office in the building has its own restroom, and electrical circuits are overloaded, Sutherland said.
Employees are stuffed into rooms that once housed patients. The makeshift offices have an assemblage of desks and microwaves and a messy network of cords and power strips.
Rock County Director of Human Services Kate Luster said regulating temperature in the building is difficult because rooms aren’t ventilated, except for a few window air conditioning units. Cool air blows in the corridors, so employees put fans in the hallway to divert air into their offices.
Sutherland said the building, which also is home to the Rock County Medical Examiner’s Office, the county’s IT department and emergency operations, has an excessive amount of space. Offices should have about 350 square feet per employee, Sutherland said. The health care center currently has about three times that, primarily because of its layout.
Aside from cosmetic and efficiency concerns, Luster said, public transit to the building is infrequent.
The building largely houses the Department of Human Services behavioral health and children, youth and family programs and administrative staff. The department also offers services at the Rock County Job Center, Eclipse Center in Beloit and at facilities in Janesville. Luster said the widely spread offices could inhibit some client’s access.
In a survey conducted by the department, most county clients indicated they would prefer the department’s offices be in downtown Janesville or on the city’s south side. Luster said consolidating services in a centrally-located building could be beneficial.
Additionally, Luster said, the bleak, dated aesthetics at the health care center give “an institutional feel” that is not conducive to fostering a warm and hospitable climate for clients.
“The physical environment of the space that we’re using to deliver services says a lot about the work and how we do it,” Luster said. “We want an environment where clients feel welcomed, where they feel comfortable, where they feel safe, where they feel they belong.”
In interviews, several Rock County Board members signaled openness to a new, consolidated human services building and admitted the current complex is inefficient and dreary.
Three-fourths of the Rock County Board, or 22 members, must vote to approve borrowing, which likely will be the primary source of funding for the projects. Rock County Administrator Josh Smith likely will forecast the costs for each master plan item in each year’s budget. Smith said the board might vote on some projects outside of the budget.
As of December, the county was using 7.3 percent of its debt capacity, meaning it could legally borrow up to $534 million more before hitting its limit, Smith said.
Sutherland has assembled a preliminary priorities list for the master plan, which identifies nearly $150 million in facilities projects over the next eight years.
Board member Bob Yeomans said the health care center is “very inefficient and uncomfortable” for human services staff. He pointed to the building’s massive size and said some of the cost of a new facility could be returned through reduced maintenance and overhead.
Yeomans praised the master plan, saying it identifies pressing issues with county facilities. He said the costs of facilities projects might exceed the amount detailed in Sutherland’s priories list, but they also might be less, depending on how discussions shake out.
“Maybe we can offer a solution that’s completely different from the master plan,” he said. “But one of the things it (the master plan) does is identify problems and problem areas.
“I think it’s wonderful they’re thinking strategically instead of just reacting, and I think it’s wonderful we have a road map.”
Board member Richard Bostwick said the human services building proposal initially gave him pause. But he said he has since been convinced that repurposing the drab building “doesn’t make sense.”
“I’m a firm believer (a new building) is the way to go,” Bostwick said. “It would actually cost less to build new rather than renovate.”
County board Chairman Russ Podzilni said he’ll let the general services committee, which votes on capital projects before they go to the full county board, lead the way on the facilities master plan. He’s comfortable with the master plan’s direction and admitted the county will “have to spend some money.”
“We have to find a new location.” Podzilni said. “Our best options would be to vacate that building and relocate.”