As Medford school officials wrestle with spiraling costs on its bond projects, Jackson County remains within budget as it wraps up the final phase of a seven-year effort to rebuild 14 library branches.
Though a year behind schedule, the county has completed 11 buildings, is nearly finished with a new Phoenix branch, has just started construction in Shady Cove and expects to go out to bid soon on the Butte Falls remodel.
County officials said they did their homework, spending two years assessing the needs of each branch before putting the $38.9 million bond measure before voters in 2000.
"We did have a very solid concept of what we wanted to do and there was no fuzziness about it," said Harvey Bragg, deputy county administrator.
By comparison, the Medford School District has tried to close a $27 million budget gap as it spends $189 million in voter-approved bonds to remodel, rebuild or repair 18 schools.
Despite adhering to budgets, the library building program hasn't been without controversy.
Some residents thought the new branches were too large. Others questioned artwork, fireplaces or larger conference rooms.
Many of the extras were provided by $1.4 million in donations from the community. Talent had the most donations at $328,000. Medford came in second at $309,000. Other contributions included $204,000 in Ruch, $190,000 in Applegate, $130,000 in Gold Hill, $117,000 in Eagle Point and $100,000 in Jacksonville.
The county shut down all 15 library branches for six months this year when the federal government stopped sending $23 million annually under a timber payments program. Critics charged there were too many branches in the system.
During the shutdown, new branches were being built and bids were selected on new buildings. By law, the county had to use the voter-approved bonds for building projects, not operating expenses.
Bragg said the county spent considerable time assessing the size of each branch and the type of materials that would be used to come up with an estimate of cost per square foot.
To prevent the county from getting overwhelmed with the work ahead, Bragg said it completed the projects in phases to keep a tight rein on costs.
He said the county also held firm with contractors from project to project, making sure each one came within budget.
The county also calculated how much inflation it should expect over the multiyear building project.
"We got good estimates of what we thought the costs would be," he said.
The county purposely cut down on parking lot projects to make sure there was sufficient cushion left over at the end. Bragg said that once all the projects are completed, the county will use any remaining money to finish the parking lots.
Despite the best efforts to anticipate every detail, Bragg said the Central Library in Medford required significant redesign to make sure costs came within initial estimates.
The bonds themselves, which will expire in 2020, have also been refinanced at more favorable interest rates, meaning taxpayers will pay $2.1 million less over their life.
Medford School Board Chairman Mike Moran said the district has dealt with potentially more complicated problems compared with the libraries.
The county "didn't have two buildings that have been determined to be unsafe to occupy," he said, citing one example. Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools were closed in June after engineers deemed they were structurally unsound.
Moran said the district has readily admitted that there have been many flaws in estimates to remodel or build schools.
"We didn't get accurate numbers from the start," he said.
He said the district is confident that the new high school will be built for $83 million and in other estimates for the buildings that will be remodeled.
"I feel confident in the numbers that we're going forward with," he said.
With $23 million left over after other projects are completed, the district has some tough decisions ahead, said Moran. The district must decide whether to spend the remaining money on rebuilding Jackson and Roosevelt or turning the old South Medford into a third middle school.
He said he has already done some preliminary research to find out if modular classrooms could be used at either Jackson or Roosevelt. No decision has been made, but Moran said, "It's an option that I would keep open."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.