Council gets sticker shock on homeless shelter fixes
By Jon Hawley
Saturday, April 20, 2019
Repairing dilapidated houses to serve as homeless shelters could cost Elizabeth City well over $70,000, city councilors learned Wednesday.
Councilors didn't agree to pay that amount, which are based on contractors’ estimates. Instead, they asked city staff to get more quotes and possibly rein in the scope of repairs.
City officials sought contractors' estimates in response to councilors’ months-long pursuit of opening either one or even two homeless shelters.
Councilor Darius Horton secured a $50,000 earmark for a shelter operator last year, but the project stalled for lack of a location. The city's former homeless shelter at 709 Herrington Road needs costly repairs to be fit for occupancy — so costly that City Manager Rich Olson previously recommended selling it.
The city spent much of this year negotiating with Pasquotank County for use of the former health department building on Cedar Street. Those talks failed, however. Pasquotank has tentatively accepted an offer to sell the building to a childcare operator instead.
Undeterred, councilors asked Olson to find alternate shelter sites last month, including houses the city acquired through foreclosures. They also asked city staff to reconsider repairs to the former shelter facility at 709 Herrington Road.
Councilor Kem Spence also urged the city to open two shelters, one for women and children and one for men.
During Wednesday's finance committee meeting, Community Development Director Matthew Schelly reported the city got estimates for repairing three possible shelter sites: 709 Herrington Road, 207 E. Cypress Street, and 209 Burgess Street. Providing estimates were Fenton Construction, of Hertford, and Quality Builders, of Elizabeth City.
The contractors' estimates call for substantial, and sometimes different, repairs, Schelly reported.
For the 709 Herrington Road site, Quality estimated the repairs to cost $75,600 and Fenton estimated them to cost $81,900. Quality did not provide a breakdown of costs, but noted electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems were “okay as-is.” Fenton proposed spending $26,000 to replace both.
For the 207 Cypress Street site, Fenton estimated costs of $95,100 and Quality estimated costs of $142,664, including electrical and HVAC replacement, interior repairs and repainting.
For the 209 Burgess Street site — a large house that could house up to 15 — Fenton estimated costs of $137,100 and Quality estimated costs of $278,800. The major cost difference is due in part to Quality proposing to remove and replace interior walls as part of electrical, HVAC and plumbing work, Schelly explained.
Schelly said those cost estimates come with a caveat: it's unclear what work or repairs a shelter operator might also request.
Spence took issue with the high estimates, and “big differences” between them, alluding to the fact the contractors didn't always agree on what repairs each house needed. He asked why the city didn't get a third estimate.
Schelly said a third contractor was too busy to provide one.
Councilor Jeannie Young said she had other contractors look at 709 Herrington Road, including B&M Contractors, and they advised her the structure’s electrical and HVAC systems are fine, but its floors need repair.
With support from contractors, and potential church and community volunteers, Young said she believes 709 Herrington Road could be reopened at a fraction of Fenton's and Quality's estimates.
However, Schelly reported another wrinkle with the 709 Herrington Road site: it could only house four homeless people, barring spending thousands of additional dollars on a fire sprinkler system. The house once held eight people, but fire codes have changed and require sprinklers for houses occupied by more than five people, he said.
Were the city to repair the 209 Burgess Street site, it could hold twice as many people or more, according to Schelly's report. However, Olson advised against running a shelter that large in a house. With that many people, a shelter should go into an “institutional” building of some kind, he advised council.
Olson also asked City Council for direction — and cautioned that the city could not easily afford the potential costs of operating two shelters. The city has only set aside $50,000 in the current year’s budget — for operations, not facility repairs, he noted — and is already wrestling with next year's budget without homeless shelter funding. Based on Olson's budget numbers, one cent's worth of the city's property tax rate, now 65.5 cents per $100 of valuation, would generate about $119,000.
“Before you know it, you're going to have well over $200,000 a year in running homeless shelters, I'm just cautioning you, and I don't think the city can afford that,” he said.
Councilors agreed they needed more information, and to speak with Pasquotank County commissioners about their potential support for homeless shelters during a joint meeting scheduled for April 29.
They directed city staff to work with Fenton and Quality to revise their numbers, and solicit more bids. Councilor Johnnie Walton also asked Young to report to councilors on how much her contractors and volunteers would need for the work.
Despite the challenges and costs involved in the shelters, Spence urged councilors to push forward on them.
“I don't want to keep prolonging this,” Spence said, stressing the city has homeless people and families who are in need. “At some point, we need to put a period on this.”
Olson also reported that the city had to pay Fenton and Quality a total of about $1,500 to expedite their estimates.