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Effect of county office move on Winchester unknown

By Alex Bridges

Frederick County would leave Winchester with either a lot of taxable commercial space or an empty building if government offices move out of the city.

Frederick County would fall in line with many of its counterparts across the state if leaders accept an offer to build a new office center outside Winchester. Counties and cities operate independently but a few cities host their neighbors' government offices just as many towns do.

Shenandoah and Warren counties keep the majority of their government offices in the respective "seats" of Woodstock and Front Royal. While neither county appears poised to move their offices any time soon, no rules say they can't if such an offer arises.

Front Royal Town Manager Steven M. Burke explained Friday the county seat typically serves as the site for the courthouse. The county then usually locates the government offices close to the courthouse.

"Cities are independent of the county so there's no requirement for the county to locate within the community," Burke said. "They can at their option.

"That said, there's nothing that would prohibit Warren County from locating its offices outside of the town limits," Burke added. "However, to better serve most of the residents, where you'll typically have the densest population in a town within the county, it makes more sense for them to locate services where the majority of the population lives."

Nothing prohibits the county from building government offices closer to Linden or other communities in the future. But investments made by counties to keep offices in the towns likely means they plan to stay.

Shenandoah County spent $4.51 million to renovate the old Woodstock High School on U.S. 11 to accommodate many of the local departments. The county administration and the school division moved into the building in January 2000 along with the treasurer, commissioner of revenue, voter registration, tourism and economic development, social services, the Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension branch, planning and zoning and building inspections, fire and rescue department, the 911 emergency communications and the health department.

Years later the health and social services departments relocated to a renovated building in the shopping center next to the former school.

Warren County followed suit after Shenandoah County only a short time later by moving many of its government offices and agencies into a former IGA grocery store on Commerce Avenue. At a budget of nearly $2 million, the county consolidated its administration, planning and zoning, commissioner of revenue and treasurer and several other agencies. The school division moved into an addition it built on the side of the facility.

County Administrator Douglas Stanley pointed out recently the jurisdiction's continued interest in remaining in Front Royal. The county is in the process of relocating its Department of Social Services to the former school building on 15th Street.

Burke noted that the town likely benefits from the county's presence as customers use the offices and then visit and patrons other stories downtown.

Woodstock Mayor Jeremy McCleary acknowledged that the relationship between cities and counties differs from those with towns. McCleary also agreed that Woodstock sees a benefit from the county keeping its government offices in town limits. But McCleary said he didn't want to comment further because he was not familiar with the details of the proposal in Frederick County.

Frederick County recently received an unsolicited proposal through the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 from Frederick County Center LLC to build a 150,000-square-foot government center outside city limits. Under the PPEA, a firm may make an unsolicited proposal to design and build a government project. The proposal submitted by Frederick County Center LLC also calls for the entity to provide financing and land for the project as well as design and construction services. Additionally, the firm would buy the existing county government building at 107 N. Kent St.

Details of the proposal, including the location and cost to build the center, remain proprietary and undisclosed, Deputy County Administrator Jay Tibbs has said.

But what happens to the building should the county moves its offices remains uncertain. Director of the Economic Development Authority for Winchester, Jim Deskins, commented when asked about the potential effect of the offices moving out of the city.

"The impact to the city is completely contingent on the reuse of the existing facility downtown," Deskins stated in an email. "If the building would become a taxable property with an equal or greater number of occupants with equal to or greater spending capacity then the economic impact would be positive; if the inverse were true then the impact would proportionately reflect of the nature of the reuse."

Approximately 200 county employees work in the government center that lies near the downtown pedestrian mall. The center also draws residents, visitors and customers, all of whom would conduct their business with the county outside Winchester rather than near downtown.

The Frederick County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution April 24 to accept the proposal and to open the door for competing submissions. The resolution states the county population has increased since 1994 when it acquired the North Kent Street property. The county can better serve residents by moving the offices out of the city, the resolution states.

The county may have another incentive to build a new center. The county continues to spend money to maintain the nearly 20-year-old building -- approximately $300,000 in fiscal 2012 for electricity, natural gas, water, insurance, supplies and other items, according to information from Tibbs. The county spent $354,477 in fiscal 2011 on an energy performance contract with Siemen's to replace lighting and other equipment with more energy efficient models.

Some guaranteed cash would leave the city. The county paid the Winchester Parking Authority $14,094 in fiscal 2012 for parking spaces for government employees - workers who would no longer need to use the facilities.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com


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