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Hall leaders make deal on new digs
Commissioners now want new name for building
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Debbie Morrison pulls paperwork Friday for a customer at the Hall County tag office. The office is one of those that would move to the county’s new headquarters at the former Liberty Mutual building. - photo by Tom Reed

After nearly scrapping the idea six months ago, Hall County is putting down an investment on moving its headquarters to the Liberty Mutual building.

With a unanimous vote from the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday to approve funding plans, the only real controversy among county leaders now seems to be what to call the building.

"We've got to come up with a new name other than Liberty Mutual," Commissioner Craig Lutz said at the meeting.
The building, once occupied by Liberty Mutual, has been vacated by the insurance group.

Thursday's deal, which will pay the Atlanta-based architectural firm Sizemore Group $70,500 for second phase plans, revives the effort to consolidate county services outside of downtown Gainesville and into the building on Browns Bridge Road.

Six months ago, the county seemed prepared to cut its losses and sell the building. However, a suitable buyer never materialized.

On Thursday, commissioners were united in optimism that the plan to renovate would ultimately be beneficial to the county and its residents.

"I believe it will improve customer service and help synergies within the county," said Lutz, who has been resistant to the project in the past.

In addition to efficiencies from bringing services together, county officials also say the move will reduce operational costs and eliminate the need for renting office space. County administration is currently located at the downtown Courthouse Annex, while other departments are spread throughout other parts of the county.

Part of the new optimism seems to be springing from the county's negotiations with Sizemore, which is slashing costs below previous estimates.

County documents show new projections for renovations are about a third lower than original estimates of $5 million to $8.5 million offered by Sizemore.

Commissioners Billy Powell and Ashley Bell, who were both critical of the firm's previous estimates, worked with county staff in negotiations with Sizemore this week.

Those negotiations, county officials say, lowered the asking price for second phase plans from $90,000 to $70,500.

"We appreciate (Sizemore) working with us on that," Powell said Thursday. "That means a lot to us to save almost $20,000."

Powell said the firm agreed to turn a built-in "contract administration fee" of $19,500, into an hourly "as needed" fee not to exceed that price.

The county spent $6.1 million on the Liberty Mutual Building in August 2010 through a credit line that will be repaid using special purpose local option sales tax revenue.

Now that renovation costs are dropping, Lutz said, the purchase of the building is looking like a better deal.

"You can't build that for what we got it for, and we've worked the last 11 months trying to get the move-in value to where we can afford to move in," he said.

In addition to the county's commission and administration staff, the new headquarters is slated to house tax, election, finance, human resource and other county departments. It will also house commission meeting space.

The next phase plans will produce detailed mechanical, electrical and plumbing drawings, Powell said, which will be used by subcontractors in renovations.

As for the name? Public Works Director Ken Rearden, who has been leading county staff in efforts to bring move-in costs down, told commissioners Thursday that his department has been calling the building "CAB," short for County Administrative Building.

To which Lutz joked, "Does that mean we have to paint it yellow?"

On Friday, Lutz said the county does have two other suggestions on the table, with more possibly coming in. So far, the other contenders are Hall County Government Building and Hall County Administrative Center.

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