By Jim Newell
The battle over a proposed new Orion Township Hall continues, with both sides making their case about why the township does, or does not, need to issue $15 million in bonds to cover the cost.
Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett said the opposition to the township’s plan has been using misinformation when getting residents to sign petitions to put the issue on the ballot for a referendum vote.
“I think facts matter and I think it’s easy to scare people,” Barnett said. “A lot of what’s being said is to elicit emotion. If they’re trying to scare people to a response, they may have some luck.”
Barnett added that an ad in the Aug. 21 issue of the Lake Orion Review taken out by Orionvotes.org, the group opposing a new township hall, contained several errors.
The ad claims that there are 29,000 people living in 13,000 households in the township. Barnett said that, according to the township’s assessing and building department database, there are 15,143 households and around 39,000 residents, according to SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) estimates. In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated Orion Township’s population at 38,849.
Based on these numbers, Barnett said the ad’s claim that it would cost each household $1,154 is wrong.
He also said that the township would not use $15 million to build a new township hall, which is estimated to cost $11.4 million for 38,441 square feet.
Barnett added that the cost of a new township hall would be about $200 per square foot.
“We’re building a commercial building for residential costs,” he said. “We’re not raising taxes. Period. I think we need to get some factual information out there, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We are not going to borrow anything close to $15 million.”
The Orion Township Board of Trustees has voted at every step to continue the process – from a space allocation study, to hiring architects and a project manager and issuing bonds.
Barnett said he, as supervisor, is carrying out the direction the board has given.
He has also been meeting with groups around the community to explain the plan and answer questions. Last month, he spoke at a Greater Oakland Republican Club meeting.
“I’m willing to take the show on the road. I’ll take appointments,” Barnett said, adding that if Homeowners’ Associations or other groups want to meet, to contact his office.
Barnett also said he’s concerned about delaying the construction of a new township hall – up to a year, possibly – if the decision goes to a ballot, adding that an election would take time and resources that could have been used toward the long-term project.
Barnett also addressed complaints about “no-bid contracting” – that the township hasn’t gotten construction competitive bids.
“We have not gone out to bid on our contracts, yet,” he said.
The township’s plan would be to use “creative revenue streams” to pay for the debt service for the proposed new township hall, which includes upwards of $500,000 annually from the host fee for the Eagle Valley Landfill.
The township would also use money from marijuana permits – estimated to generate around $250,000 per year – from the grow facility approved for construction and operation on Premier Drive off of M-24.
“Those funds (from the landfill) have been used to build safety path projects, the Orion Center, Wildwood Amphitheater, and assisted in building and renovating fire stations. The funds will be 100 percent earmarked to service this bond debt. The marijuana revenue is new and will also be 100 percent earmarked to service the debt,” Barnett wrote in a post on his supervisor’s Facebook page.
The township also set aside $2.5 million for a new hall, or to renovate the existing hall – money it would use right off the top before using the bond monies, township officials said.
The township’s annual debt service on a 20-year, $15 million bond at 2.75 percent interest rate would be $991,000. It would be $661,000 if the township only used $10 million.
The township has commissioned four space allocation feasibility studies – in 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2018 – to assess the needs of each township department. All of the studies concluded that the township is growing and needs more space at township hall.
The original township hall was built in 1974 with an addition in 1996, and has a current 20,000 square foot footprint.
Under the estimated probable project costs, renovating the existing township hall to meet the anticipated growth estimates would cost $9.15 million to expand to 38,875 square feet.
The township would also have to spend about $1 million to relocate employees during construction and then move them back into township hall if the township chose to renovate the existing hall, said Sam Ashley of Cunningham Limp, the township’s construction management company on the project.
If the township proceeds with the plan, it would build a new hall on the 76 acres of land the township owns on Joslyn Road, just north of Greenshield Road. That acreage was acquired for $96,000 and a land swap with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
“We have to do something. Doing nothing is not an option,” Barnett said.
The opposition – Let the residents decide
Township resident Bill Kelley started a petition to get the issue – whether or not the township should issue the bonds – to go before voters. They have 45 days from July 24 to collect the necessary signatures and force a referendum vote.
As of July 29, there were 28,190 registered voters, so petitioners need to collect 2,819 valid signatures (10 percent of the total).
Kelley has said that voters should decide on a bond of that magnitude, and if it’s the will of the people to support the project, he’s fine with that.
“(Barnett’s) asked, time and again, why people don’t trust him. Why doesn’t he trust the constituency of Lake Orion voters to put something forward” on a ballot, Kelley said.
Kelley said he believes the township, and Barnett, are holding the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Orion Twp. Substation “hostage” over the necessity of a new township hall.
The substation has limited space for the current number of deputies, with three sergeants working out of a trailer at township hall. Other deputies have converted what used to be supply closets into offices.
There is also water damage and mold in areas of the sheriff’s office.
Kelley points out that a new sheriff’s office is estimated to cost $2.5 million – the amount that the township board set aside in 2016. That money could be used for the sheriff’s office now, he said.
“If that’s really an issue that is most pressing…why in the world haven’t they done something for them,” Kelley said. “It just appears that they’re looking at this very myopically.”
Kelley also said the township’s revenue streams to pay for a bond are not in place.
“We currently do not have a marijuana grow facility in our township, so there is no committed money that can be drawn from that,” Kelley said.
Kelley, who has a background in facilities development and equipment integration for the “Big Three” automotive companies, added that the township cannot know the actual costs of constructing a new township hall because they haven’t gone out for any bids yet.
Kelley said he does recognize that there are problems with the current township hall, but feels: one, the issue should before voters; and two, the township hasn’t explored all the renovation/reconstruction options of the current township hall.
“I recognize the problems with (the current township hall). Although it’s definitely got some problems, there are many ways to remediate those issues,” he said.