The Rice County Board of Commissioners agreed Tuesday to take bids on a $4.7 million expansion of the county’s main highway shop in Faribault.

County Engineer Dennis Luebbe noted that the aging facility has not been significantly expanded since the shop, which houses a number of county vehicles, including snowplows, and a several of staff members, was first built in 1975. At the time, the shop housed both the highway and zoning departments, the latte has since moved into the Government Services Building on Third Street NW.

In 2016, the county commissioned a space needs study, which identified the Government Services Building, main county jail and Highway Department facility as areas in need of extra space.

The Highway Department has been working with John McNamara of Wold Architects and Engineers to devise an expansion plan that suits its needs. Commissioners will begin taking bids on the project in late September. The project could begin this fall, but commissioners are willing to wait until the spring, to break ground, should a low bidder prefer the later start.

Commissioner Steve Underdahl at the Aug. 20 meeting suggested offering an option for contractors to postpone the project until spring. Underdahl, a contractor, says he knows a lot of contractors are foregoing bids because they’ve got enough work lined up for fall. A spring start would likely allow more bidders, which typically means lower bids.

Commissioner Galen Malecha, concerned about the project’s increase in scope, asked how the county was paying for the work.

A portion of that, $1.5 million is coming from the $10 million in bonds the county sold to pay for the expansion of the Government Services Building. Paul O’Connell, the county’s chief financial officer, said the county planned to use those funds for the Highway Department project. The remainder, she said, is coming from the department’s reserves.

The project

Both the office and shop areas of the facility are set to be expanded. The office area will be extended approximately 30 feet toward the highway while the shop portion will extend another 100 feet out the back, with added width on both sides.

The Highway Department has added a significant amount of heavy machinery to its stalls since 1975. In addition, many of the maintenance trucks are significantly larger than what was on the road in 1975.

As a result, much of the county’s heavy machinery sits outside due to lack of space, leaving it exposed to Minnesota’s often brutal winter weather conditions. Space in the buildings is so limited that mechanics have difficulty doing their jobs, and the parts room is also bursting at the seams.

The added shop space will enable the county to add another four heated garage stalls for heavy machinery as well as an expanded parts room. Luebbe says that the addition will make an essential difference for the shop’s mechanics.

“We need a little bit more room for maintenance, we need more room to store equipment, we have more equipment (than we used to) and the equipment we have is bigger than what this building can fit,” Luebbe said.

Even more concerning than the lack of space for machines is the lack of space for people. As the department has grown, interior space has become increasingly limited. In the shop portion of the building, the men’s bathrooms are not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards — and there are no women’s bathrooms at all.

The breakroom and other rooms in the shop area have become exceptionally cramped. The department has 10 full-time employees working in its industrial shop, and adds another 8 part-time employees during the summer. Under the new plans for the industrial area, the breakroom and men’s bathroom will receive badly needed expansions, and a women’s bathroom will be added.

Currently, the shop area breakroom barely has space for the 10 full-time employees, let alone the additional part-time employees. With just a single toilet and shower stall, the men’s bathroom is similarly overtaxed. While the department doesn’t employ any women in the shop area, Luebbe says there’s little doubt that that will change in the future.

The building’s office areas are similarly undersized. The new renovation would add a dedicated full-sized conference room for meetings and other large gathering as well as smaller office spaces for private discussions.

Currently, large and small meetings are held in the breakroom. The space is often for open houses and other large meetings, which can sometimes include as many as 30-40 people. When the room is used for smaller meetings, employees who utilize the room as a breakroom lose access to it.

Luebbe said that expanding the Highway Department is a crucial investment for the future. He notes that the county is expected to continue to grow, making the county’s road maintenance needs almost certain to increase.

“We’re not growing really fast, but we’re still growing, and I think that will continue,” Luebbe noted. “We’re still a good bargain for people who don’t want to live in the Twin Cities.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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