Used furniture helped keep down the $300,000 cost of renovated offices for the Cuyahoga County executive and council, while high costs for electrical installations helped drive up the cost of the new council chambers to almost $1 million.
This winter, a tipster suggested I look at the cost of county executive Ed FitzGerald’s new office, to see if he was being frugal in the face of the county's budget shortage. It took about two months to get a full accounting of the renovations (some of which were ongoing) from FitzGerald’s staff, but they seem proud of the end result.
The county commissioners budgeted about $200,000 for fourth floor renovations before they left office, FitzGerald spokesman John Kohlstrand told me. FitzGerald’s administration added about $89,000 in spending in January, including $16,000 for carpeting to cover 60-year-old floor tile and $18,000 to improve a new meeting room that will be used for press conferences and some council committee hearings.
“We have attempted to be very modest in our overall approach to creating our office space on the 4th Floor,” wrote Kohlstrand in an e-mail. “The layout does not really lend itself to the requirements identified for the new government, but we have tried to make the most of it on a shoestring budget.”
Nearly all the new offices were furnished with all used furniture, including FitzGerald’s office, according to Kohlstrand. (FitzGerald is reportedly using Jim Rokakis’ old desk.) “At this point, the only new furniture expense was $5,572 to purchase 63 portable chairs for the multipurpose room," Kohlstrand wrote. The administration also spent about $50,000 for office equipment and fixtures.
To judge the renovations’ cost, I ran the expenses past Martin Zanotti, one of the main leaders of the movement to create the new government. Zanotti has overseen construction budgets as the former mayor of Parma Heights and CEO of Republic Alternative Technologies.
“With their critical eye on the juvenile justice center, they held themselves to the same threshold,” Zanotti says of FitzGerald and his staff. “It’s a very proper tone to set,” Zanotti says.
Shrewd, too: Re-using old county furniture highlights the contrast between FitzGerald and the juvenile court judges’ infamous $23,000 conference table.
The charter created an 11-member council but left the old government and the transition team with the task of figuring out where the council would meet. Last summer, the transition group chose to renovate the old Justice Center auditorium. The less expensive alternative, renovating the commissioners’ old chambers, would have created only half as many seats for the public. And it might not have lasted as long, since the county administration building may be torn down in the future, if the new Medical Mart and convention center project succeeds and needs to expand. The Justice Center isn’t going anywhere.
Preliminary estimates priced the cost of the new chamber at $888,000. The commissioners budgeted $680,000 in August. Instead, the final cost of the council chambers came in at $980,000, including $272,000 for electrical work.
The electrical expense “struck me as being a high price, though God knows what they ran into,” Zanotti says. “Nothing else seemed grossly out of line to me. It was a reasonable amount.”
Still, to the layman, nearly a million dollars may sound like a lot of money to spend on a single room. It makes somewhat more sense if you saw the auditorium before and after. When I visited last year for a sheriff’s auction, it looked looked exactly like what it was: the end-of-the-line room where a hard-luck county’s tax-foreclosed properties were sold for cheap. It was ugly and cramped, with low ceilings and an awkward layout facing a more awkward stage. Now it’s bright, spacious, equipped with modern communications, a place for a new start, not a space people want to flee. I don’t think the council had anything to do with outfitting the council chamber; it was ready for them when they were sworn in Jan. 3.
The cost of both renovations was paid out of a $7 million transition fund the commissioners authorized. About half of the fund went to the cost of holding the Sept. and Nov. 2010 elections to choose the executive and council. Kohlstrand says about $1.37 million is left for other priorities, including the potential cost of ethics training for county employees.