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Audit reveals millions needed for county energy systems
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The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted three to two Tuesday night to approve negotiations with a comprehensive guaranteed energy savings performance contract for $14.7 million.

At an earlier work session, Curtis Brown and other representatives of ABM Industries presented the results of an investment-grade energy audit of Newton County’s buildings, including the Detention Center. Many, Brown said, are in danger of catastrophic failures of HVAC and other energy systems.

“Right now,” Brown said, “your buildings are old and there’s been a lot of deferred maintenance.”

Without taking steps now, he said, the county risked catastrophic failures of systems, similar to what the main branch of the library experienced last year when its air conditioning stopped working.

Brown presented the results of an energy audit ordered by the BOC earlier this year. The board had requested a “budget neutral” recommendation for the programs, one that would not cost the county additional money beyond what it could save by making facilities more energy efficient.

However, the breadth of needs for updates, repairs and replacement, at least minimizing the threat of system failures, led ABM to recommend comprehensive investment programs for both the Detention Center and the other county buildings, a self-funded program for both; or a combination of comprehensive and self-funded. A self-funded program means significant savings from replacing inefficient energy systems could offset the cost of the investment.

Four resolutions drafted

Megan Martin of Jarrard and Davis Law Firm, the county attorney, had prepared four different resolutions: one to negotiate with contractors for a comprehensive energy investment; one for a totally self-funded project, which would address some of the issues revealed in the audit; and two for contracts to work on a comprehensive program for the county and self-funded program for the sheriff’s office project and vice-versa.

The most significant needs are at the Detention Center, the audit reported, and include replacing a prematurely aged HVAC system; replacing a leaking, uninsulated metal roof; installing controls for water flow; and replacing kitchen and laundry equipment. According to Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, he will need to replace the roof, at an estimated cost of $350,000, the kitchen and laundry equipment at $225,000, and replace the HVAC’s cooling tower at $500,000.

The Judicial Building’s HVAC cooling tower will also need replacing soon, Brown said.

The comprehensive option would eliminate energy waste, minimize risk of capital outlay and address known infrastructure issues of energy waste at all county buildings, including the administration building, firehouses, the historic courthouse and the sheriff’s office. The comprehensive plan would drop the cost of operation per square foot in all county buildings, with the largest drop being from $4.50 at the sheriff’s office to approximately $2.75. It would include installation of LED lighting and updated controls; water conservation systems; major HVAC replacements; new security systems in multiple locations; and a new, county-wide phone system.

Brown said the advantages of adopting the comprehensive plan for all facilities include taking advantage of low interest rates and negating the risk of unplanned capital outlay. The disadvantages are the larger investment made up front and the need to budget $325,000 for loan payments in addition to the money made available through energy savings.

The county could obtain a loan for the $14.7 million for the comprehensive plan at 2 percent interest, with payments over 15 years beginning 2018.

The self-funded options for all county buildings would cost $8,999,393, with $5,604,049 going to the Detention Center, and $3,395,344 to other county buildings. The investments would only address those problems that do not require more than the amount saved through energy efficiency. This option does not address major capital needs and would require the county to spend an estimated $3.7 million in capital funds over the next five years.

The self-funded option would cover investments in critical projects at the Detention Center as well as replacement of the HVAC cooling tower at the Judicial Center. Only security and county-wide phone systems would be replaced at other facilities.

Brown said there would still be a risk of unplanned capital outlay and requires planning to budget for replacing inoperable equipment in excess of $3.7 million.

A blended option would address only those projects selected in each building and would cost $10,714,402, with the comprehensive plan enacted at the Detention Center and the self-funded option for the remaining county buildings.

Special-purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) could be used for the projects, Brown said. He also said if the BOC adopted a resolution for one of the investment plans and contract negotiations were completed, work would take between nine and 12 months to complete.

Deferred maintenance comes due

Chair Keith Ellis told the board during the work session that he supported the comprehensive proposal for repairing, replacing or upgrading all county buildings. He said as far as he knew, no money had been spent on building maintenance since he had become BOC Chair.

“I wish we could do a better job of setting aside funds for this,” Ellis said.

Commissioner Lanier Sims, District 2, agreed, saying he never wanted to go through the process of replacing an expensive piece of equipment, as the board had done last year when the main branch of the library’s HVAC system stopped working. “I’ve never seen so many buildings in danger ... If the board doesn’t do something aggressive [now], what is our plan? We have not had a plan for dealing with buildings and infrastructure. This isn’t just on us. It’s on previous boards.”

“Are we going to continue working in energy crisis mode?” Sims asked.

He said the county couldn’t keep spending millions to build a building without budgeting for its maintenance.

Sims reiterated his opinion during the meeting. However, Commissioner Levie Maddox, District 5, disagreed with his fellow commissioner. “I’ve got it in my mind we can’t afford this. The option is spending money. We’re struggling mightily to approve a budget.”

Over the last few months, the county has been working to revise its fiscal year 2017 budget requests, which will have a $2.1 million shortfall if the millage rate isn’t raised. [See “BOC needs more than $2 million to balance budget” at]

At its July 12 work session, the BOC came to a consensus on how to balance the fiscal year 2017 budget, charging a $50 fee for use of the county’s convenience centers through January and reducing hours of operation until the centers close.

Called on by the commissioners to address the Sheriff’s Office’s needs, Sheriff Ezell Brown said, “We’re in a situation where we’re going to have to replace a roof [at $350,000], to replace kitchen equipment [at $250,000], not to talk about a cooling system and that’s $500,000 cooling towers.

“We’re at a cross roads,” the sheriff said. “We’re in a situation where we are going to need to replace [systems].”