DADE CITY — To balance budgets in recent years, Pasco County officials have laid off county workers, levied a controversial parking fee at many popular parks and cut library hours.
At the same time, they have been planning to build a $13 million facility to house the county's information technology operations.
As part of his budget battle with the County Commission, Sheriff Bob White seized on the new IT center. He calls it shameful that commissioners denied him roughly $4 million for 28 new deputies and other costs while planning what he dubbed a "computer palace."
In the jargon of political consultants, the optics aren't good.
But county officials are moving ahead. They argue the construction is a one-time expense and it wouldn't be prudent to use that cash for an ongoing cost like hiring new deputies. After a couple of years, the money would be used up and the county would have to find another way to pay the salaries.
But they say the real reason for a new building is the lousy condition of the old one.
"I understand that nobody during these bad economic times wants to be talking about government building a building," said commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand. "It just doesn't sound good. I get it. But this building is in really bad shape."
The current data center sits in a nondescript building constructed in 1977 in downtown Dade City. Surrounded by a handful of pre-fab modular offices is a concrete structure that houses the county's key computing equipment: a mainframe computer, the county's central Internet connection and 36 servers hosting applications for a wide variety of departments.
All that stuff sits on an elevated floor commonly used for '70s-era technology. The floor is composed of dozens of large tiles, many of which are loose. Has anyone had problems with that floor?
"Well," production support leader Donnie Harrelson says with a pause. "We've had an incident."
Harrelson and another worker were re-arranging some cables on a stack of servers when the floor gave out. Over time, the pedestals that support the tiles have come loose from the building foundation and can easily shift.
"Luckily, the way the floor fell, the actual tile sort of made a brace and the server rack didn't fall all the way over," he said.
There are other problems: cracks in the building's foundation, a cramped loading dock that's too small for some equipment and a series of "critter holes" where raccoons and stray cats have burrowed under the structure.
Then there are hurricanes. Employees are required to the leave the building once wind speeds reach 45 mph because the structure is not rated for high winds. When the remnants of one storm passed by in 2004, it knocked down one of the tall oak trees near the building.
"Luckily, it fell away from the data center," Harrelson said. "We've been really lucky, actually, for all these years."
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The new building will include two 28,000-square-foot floors. The second floor will include the data center, a backup emergency operations center and 78 work stations, including more than 50 cubicles. Most of the office space is for the county's IT staff and some tax collector and property appraiser workers, but there is also a new video conference room that officials can use to reduce cross-county trips.
Hardened concrete slabs will be attached to a metal frame, giving the building a wind rating of 190 mph.
The lower floor was initially intended to include storage space for Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. His office still needs more space, but in an effort to cut construction costs, Corley said last fall he didn't need space in the new building. He asked the county to give him room in a nearby building used for records.
Corley's office is bursting because of new equipment required by the switch from touch screens to paper ballots. The touch-screen machines saved space because voters filled out and submitted their ballot using only one machine. Now, officials must store boxes of ballots, 1,600 privacy booths and a room full of trash-can-sized ballot scanners.
Corley stands by his decision to back out of the building.
"It's up to the county to decide what to do," he said. "I feel for them. They have a very difficult decision."
Plans are still in flux, but one scenario calls for Corley to move into the older building, while those records would go in the new building along with those at several other rented sites around the county.
The move would save the county about $116,000 in rent each year. But that means the county can't remove the lower floor and cut down construction costs.
"If we do (remove the lower floor), we're going to continue to rent space to store records of a felony from 35 years ago," said county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock.
Last fall, the sheriff also suggested using the empty New Port Richey jail for the data center. Nurrenbrock listed several problems: the jail is too close to the county's main back-up site, retrofit costs would be "substantial," and officials want to locate the data center farther away from the coast.
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The $13 million needed for the building would come from a half-cent sales tax bond and money set aside for capital projects. A final decision to move forward would come during this summer's budget talks. Construction could begin in roughly a year and would last from nine months to a year.
A majority of commission members say they recognize the need for a new building, though some have reservations.
"I think IT is going to play more and more of a part in county government," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri. "We don't need a Taj Mahal, but we need a workable facility and one that's secure."
Added Commissioner Ted Schrader: "It will have the latest technology available, but by no means is it going to be what I would describe as a palace."
The plan could still face some push back from two commissioners, Jack Mariano and Henry Wilson.
"Right now is not the time for a new $13 million building," Wilson said.
Mariano added that Corley's decision "frees up the funds" and could allow the county to redesign the building.
Nurrenbrock noted that the county jail has expanded several times since the idea of a new data center was floated more than 20 years ago.
"You're running mission-critical stuff in here," he said. "We have to protect this because if it went down, we would have a tough time doing business."
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.