LITTLE FALLS-Morrison County Board of Commissioners are happy to be back home.

Back home to their county board room at the Morrison County Government Center in Little Falls.

Morrison County hosted an open house Tuesday, June 18, to celebrate the first two phases of a five-phase remodeling project being completed-which includes a new and improved county board room.

The five county commissioners- Mike LeMieur, District 1; Jeffrey Jelinski, District 2; Randy Winscher, District 3; Mike Wilson, District 4; and Greg Blaine, District 5-mingled with county employees, township supervisors and community members as they discussed the completed portions of the remodeling project. They then had their first official county board meeting in the new county board room, which was the former Meeting Room 1. Commissioners met in the Little Falls City Hall chambers while the new board room was being constructed.

Morrison County Administrator Deb Gruber said the remodeling project of the government center has been in the works for many years. The county began talking about building plans in 2015. In January of 2017, the board approving a contract with Vetter Johnson Architects for the remodeling project that would take two years to complete, with it beginning in January 2018 and completion expected in July 2020.

The county's goals for the $10.2 million remodeling project are:

• No increased tax levy;

• Addressing long-term maintenance and space opportunities;

• Improving public and employee security;

• Utilizing the current building potential;

• Enhancing public service through service centers;

• Improving the environment;

• Incorporating and supporting technology;

• Promoting efficiency; and

• Providing accessibility and improving parking.

All the county's departments except the highway department are housed in a single set of interconnected buildings. The historic building was built in 1890, the west side of the building was built in 1960, the center portion of the building in 1970 and the east side of the building was built in 1990. The original courthouse square remains the county seat of the government center and the county rents it to nonprofit organizations.

"Our mechanical systems were aging and their life expectancies were coming to an end," Gruber said. 'The roof was leaking and we knew we had some opportunities to better serve our citizens. If someone had to transfer their property they had to go to two different levels and to four different offices to get it done. We wanted to take advantage of this remodeling opportunity to reduce staff cost, to work better together and serve the public better and this remodeling project does that."

The remodeling project is being done in five phases and includes upgrades in the building's security and technology. The first part of the project-Phase 1-was moving staff and furniture to temporary locations, so construction could begin with demolishing the central building of the government center off First Avenue Southeast in Little Falls. Work was completed with new office spaces serving community corrections and the land services department. There also is new office space for the information technology, recorder, passport area and auditor/treasurer departments.

Phase 2 was remodeling the garden level part of the building, which was completed and now hosts the administration lobby and staff, two meeting rooms and the county board room, which also serves as the main meeting room. Currently, the social services staff is temporary working in the newly completed social services area in the garden level in addition to temporarily occupying two meeting rooms while the main level is being completed-which will be done in Phase 3. The public health office space also is expected to be completed in Phase 3; with the motor vehicle and extension work areas to be done in Phase 4; and the sheriff's office being done in Phase 5.

All the commissioners agreed the remodeling project was needed as the building was aging and needed to be redesigned to meet the needs of staff and the public and be more cost efficient.Amy Kowalzek

County Chair Winscher said commissioners had to think of the building like their own home. He said, "If your roof leaks you have to decide if you are going to fix it." He said the county was able to do the building upgrades without raising the tax levy and he is proud they were able to do it.

"This day is special," Commissioner Blaine said. "The focus is on the employees, as they are here on a daily basis, we are only here once a week. We want to make sure we meet the needs of our staff and the needs of the public who seek service assistance from Morrison County. We want this facility to meet the needs and I think it has exceeded people's expectations. The public seems receptive to what they see."

Ralph Hanneken of rural Royalton attended the open house, invited as a Buckman Township supervisor.

"From what I see here today they are not going overboard or out of line," he said of the remodeling project. "It looks good."

Ryan Erdmann of the Association of Minnesota Counties of St. Paul agreed the first part of the remodeling project looked good and was not "over the top." He said all the upgrades were needed, especially the security.

"Courthouse security is a big deal across the state," Erdmann said, as incidents have occurred across the country, including in Morrison County. In June 2008, Morrison County commissioners and several others were held hostage at gunpoint by a Little Falls man with whom the county had feuded with for years. At that time, the boardroom did not have any exits for escape. The 20-minute standoff ended with the man being fatally shot by law enforcement officers.

Erdmann said it is important to have security in place to protect everyone involved, from employees to the public.

Amy Kowalzek, county land services director, has been with the county for 19 years and said it's fun to see the changes with the building.

"I thrive on change and when people say, 'You know what you are doing,' it makes you feel good," Kowalzek said. "It's fun to see the customers come in and are happy they don't have to go all over the place.

"We (the land department) were part of Phase 1 and we have been in our new space the longest. It has really helped with some of our transitions with the land services team where all the departments working with land are on one floor. It's more customer centric ... and a hidden benefit with all of this is we work better as a county, as a team."

Commissioner Jelinski said a big benefit the county had with the building project is it didn't have to shovel any dirt, buy any land or build anything new. He said the county board 30 years ago was smart and planned for a future building expansion.

"I'm not a contractor, builder, a blueprint reader ... so to see this all come together just blows my mind," Jelinski said. "This open house is giving everyone a chance to come see Phase 2, to see what the county has done so far."

County Public Works Director Steven Backowski said, "So far the project has been very well organized, the phases have stayed on track and it has not been disruptive to the use of the facility. It's been professionally done, not overly done."