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Pratt citizens are questioning county decisions

Courtney Blankenship
From storefront windows to resident yards, signs raising questions about Pratt County Commission approval of a multi-million dollar building project have popped up everywhere in and around Pratt. It may be several weeks before any official answers are given.

The Pratt County Commission’s plans for a new Pratt County Public Safety Center on Northeast 20th Avenue, have raised some questions and concerns around the community pertaining to the cost, source of funding, location, and necessity. While some view the proposed facilities as a needed upgrade to replace the current facilities, others question the timing and course of action for the project.

Dwight Adams, resident of Pratt County and a former county commissioner from 2004 to 2012, started placing signs around town last week to raise awareness in opposition to the project and voice his concerns with the expenditure.

According to a document Adams retrieved from the Pratt County clerk---AIA Document B141, Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect made on 28 October 2019---the professional fee schedule for the architect’s services are as follows: “Fixed fee of $367,500 based upon construction budget of $6,127,700 and scope as defined in Owner’s Program Statement.”

In a Landmark Architects document detailing the breakdown of costs for the Pratt Public Safety Center dated September 23, 2019, the total project costs amount to $6,985,190. The breakdown consists of costs for the Fire Bays, EMS Bays, EMS Living Quarters, EOC Plus, paving allowance, sitework and utilities, architectural and engineering fees, and soft costs.

Pratt County Commissioner Glenna Borho confirmed that the New Pratt County Public Safety Center will be funded using wind farm money, but refused to comment any further on cost details of the facility at this time. She stated the county commission would, in the future, hold a public meeting at which time people could ask questions and receive answers from officials involved with the project.

Pratt County resident Kim Evert said she called Borho directly when she heard about the project and was happy with answers she got at that time.

“I think the project is something that is much needed for our community,” Evert said. “After getting some facts, it was very interesting to hear the details. I was most impressed that we as taxpayers, were not having to pay for it, but would still benefit from it. There were many other details that county commissioner Glenna Borho shared that I found very helpful. She was great to talk to.”

However, Adams and many others who have not had their questions answered yet have many concerns.

According to information available via public record and already reported in county commission reports, the new facilities would house Pratt County Emergency Management, Pratt County Fire and Rescue, Pratt County Emergency Medical Services, Pratt County Communications, Pratt County Emergency Operations Center and Multi-Purpose Community Room.

“I’ve got a lot of concerns,” Adams said. “I think number one, it’s unnecessary. Number two, it’s way too much money to spend when we don’t need it.”

Adams said that while certain updates may be needed, including extra space in Township 12, he does not believe the Pratt County Public Safety Center to be necessary and said the land the facilities would be built on is overpriced.

“It just is an exorbitant amount of money to spend, particularly in the times we’re having right now,” Adams said. “When this all clears, I can tell you there’s several places in Pratt that’s probably going to need some propping up and some help.”

While Adams said the county commission is legally able to use wind farm money for the project, he said the money should instead be used to reduce taxes and help struggling businesses.

“I started spreading the word, and we started to get petitions,” Adams said. “We’re still getting petitions, but we kinda got slowed down on the petitions because of the virus thing.”

When COVID-19 struck, Adams said they got the idea to start making signs and putting them around the community so people could become aware of the project plans.

“All I wanted to do is put it up for a vote,” Adams said. “If some people voted and [they] understand it, that’s fine, but nobody really knows what’s going on. A few people are finding out, but they’ve kept it pretty much under wraps.”

With the upcoming election, Adams said all information on the plans should be made public, and all registered voters in the county of Pratt, regardless of political party affiliation, should be able to vote on the matter before any additional money is spent.

Having given out more than 125 signs already, Adams said he has had quite a bit of support.

“People call me, ‘I want 10 signs, I want 5 signs, I want 15 signs,’” Adams said. “People are upset about it.”

As a former Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and local business owner, Pratt County resident Cathy Abbott said she thought that the current building that houses emergency services and responders is ‘perfectly fine’ and she believes the new building to be a waste of money and resources.

“I know that EMS [Emergency Medical Services] needs more bays but they own the ground just east of where they’re at,” Abbott said. “They could bring in fill-dirt, and fill that in, and add on to what they have.”

Abbott said there is no reason to spend that amount of money when there are already facilities in place, and people should have a vote in the matter if a large sum of money will be spent.

“Why take it out of a central location? Why didn’t they buy the Alco building,” Abbott said. “Redo it---it’s all right there. You’d have both fire departments side by side.”

People should be shown exactly where the money is coming from to fund the building, Abbott said, and if tax dollars are not being used, then the funding source should be explained.

“It’s just not a very fond idea right now---Well, and everybody’s broke. I was shut down for five weeks. There’s people that still don’t have jobs, still not getting unemployment, it’s just not a good time.”

Abbott said she is not against changes happening in Pratt but thinks county residents should have an input. If the funding could be allocated elsewhere, Abbott said she would like to see it go toward some kind of entertainment for the youth of the community.

Dwane DeWeese, community leader and resident of Pratt County, said he is also not in support of the proposed building and believes that some of the wind farm money should go toward the funding of the schools---especially with so much uncertainty surrounding the future financial repercussions of COVID-19.

“None of that wind farm money is going to our schools,” DeWeese said. “And I asked for $150,000 for our three schools: Skyline, [USD] 382, and the college.”

DeWeese said each of the schools had come up with proposed budgets for how the money would be spent but that is as far as it went.

“I attended many county commissioner meetings until I was told that there was no money for the schools,” DeWeese said. “That, they had other priorities, and the school was not one of them.”

DeWeese said the schools are doing a good job of budgeting their money but if they could receive some of the wind farm funds, the schools would have some financial flexibility to take on new projects without having to raise the mill levy.

With current worries over COVID-19, DeWeese said nobody knows where school enrollment numbers will be next year, and as a result, the school budget could get tighter.

“I would say that, in other counties, schools have benefitted from wind farm money,” DeWeese said. “Not all the money from the wind farm has gone to the schools, but they have benefitted from them; updated their gyms, their tracks, their infrastructure. I know that to be a fact because I’ve talked to superintendents from other school districts.”

DeWeese said he is not opposed to updating the current facilities with wind farm funds to meet current needs and save money instead of constructing a new building, but he said he also has concerns regarding the location of the new facilities.

“Before we get into a major project like that, we need to have more transparency in why we’re actually doing it, and I’m concerned about the safety of being able to service Pratt County with our EMT people--and have to go through town going west, going south through town and even going north,” DeWeese said. “I’m really concerned about the safety aspect of the proposed facilities.”

Linda Hoeme, Pratt resident, said she also does not believe the new building to be necessary and is concerned about the location for the Pratt County Public Safety Center.

“I think it’s a lot of money to be spending--especially right now--and I don’t like the idea of having the ambulances on the edge of town,” Hoeme said. “Anybody I’ve visited with about this feels the same way--that they think it’s ridiculous having those ambulances out there coming off the highway, out there east of town like that.”

Hoeme said the land the facilities will sit on were expensively purchased and she only managed to find out about the expenditure when she went to the Pratt County Commission website herself.

As for the amount of funds planned for the project, Hoeme said there are a lot of needs in the county that the funds would be better suited for.

“When you start a project, it [the cost] always runs way more than you think, and I just can’t see that with times where they are,” Hoeme said. “If we have that kind of money laying around, why don’t we pay it down on that hospital.”

Though the plans for the building were already in the works well before the COVID-19 outbreak began, Hoeme said she does not understand the urgency to build the Pratt County Public Safety Center with all that is going on.

A small business owner herself, Hoeme said she has not had any business income for around two months due to the COVID-19 shutdown, and her business is not the only one struggling.

While the initial construction of the building may not use tax dollars, Hoeme said the wind farm money cannot last forever, so she does not know how to avoid using tax dollars in the future when it comes to paying costs related to maintaining the facility.

“They’re going to end up paying for that with maintenance---I don’t know how they can say that’s not going to involve tax money,” Hoeme said. “I just don’t see how they can say that because in time, there’s going to be a lot of maintenance on a big old building like that and it will hit the taxpayers and the younger people that stick around here.”

If the building were really necessary, Hoeme said, then the plans should have been brought to the public and discussed back in September or October when the building plans were being set. Recently, Hoeme said she was asked about the signs around town by two people who had no idea what they were for.

“They had no clue,” Hoeme said. “No clue that these commissioners had been working on this, and planning this, and talking to contractors about stuff---and to me---that’s like blindsiding the public, and that’s why I think people are mad that nobody has a vote.”

If 51% of people were to vote in favor of the new facilities, Hoeme said, then people would have to learn to accept it, but proof should be provided to show what the need is and why this amount of money is being used for the building.

According to information from the most recent county commission meeting, a public forum is tentatively scheduled for June 1 at the Pratt County Fairgrounds so that up to 90 people can attend in compliance with state regulations in regards to COVID-19.