Rock County officials were confronted Thursday night with higher than expected bids for upcoming projects, including a new Rock County Jail that is slated to cost $96 million.
During Thursday night’s county board meeting, supervisors and county officials were pressed on why jail bids came in over budget. Their response was that this happened in part because prevailing bidder JP Cullen was the only company offering estimates for many of the projects.
The county board on Thursday night approved a third round of bids for the jail project, this time for $58.5 million. The other two rounds of bids were approved earlier this year, amounting in total to about $96 million.
Thursday night was the final round of approvals on the jail project.
Dan Defor, of Janesville, said during a public comment session during Thursday’s meeting that he was concerned about the transparency of the jail project.
“From a citizen, transparency, acceptability and accountability perspective, would it have made more sense to get the citizens involved earlier in the process by having, let’s say a referendum… versus approving the project at the board level alone,” Defor said. “My understanding is that this is the largest public construction project, or close to it at least, in the history of Rock County, “ that will impact local taxes.
“It’s not uncommon for school districts to have referendums for these types of large capital expenditure projects. Why wasn’t that done here?” DeFor questioned.
Defor also questioned projects that had only one bidder, particularly JP Cullen. Items in the jail bids that went to JP Cullen totaled to about $23 million.
“I see that JP Cullen is acting as a construction manager, perhaps, and these line items were negotiated at a separate general services contract. Even if that’s the case, would it not have been better to request bids from multiple bidders on these common services like concrete, masonry and so forth?” Defor said. “Put it another way from a fiscal responsibility perspective, shouldn’t we have two or more bidders for these services, and if not, why not?
The county board also considered a resolution Thursday night to renovate the former law library and probate vault into additional courtrooms. The county has newly created space to do this as records in the two rooms have been digitized.
The renovations failed to pass at Thursday’s county board meeting. That needed a super majority, with 20 supervisors voting to approve.
The county had budgeted $500,000 to convert the rooms. However, due to inflation driving up prices for materials the project bids came in more than $150,000 over budget, facilities management director Brent Sutherland said. The low bid came in at $654,320.
Sutherland took responsibility for the estimate being low.
“That’s 100% on me,” Sutherland said.
Criticism regarding JP Cullen also came up in this project, as it won the bid despite Lake Geneva-based Glen Fern Construction being $151,000 lower. That bid was rejected because of “failing to provide the required bid documents,” county documents said.
Sutherland said Glen Fern had “issues with DemandStar,” a third party contractor that accepts bids for the county for government projects.
Supervisor Mike Zoril said it was fiscally irresponsible to approve JP Cullen considering the difference in the two bids.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to take this up now,” Zoril said.
Sutherland said bidders also could hand deliver estimates to the courthouse, so Glen Fern wasn’t excluded from the process.
Prior to the vote, Branch 3 Judge Jeffrey Kuglitsch said the renovations of the two rooms for additional hearing rooms was needed.
Courtroom L is “extremely confined” and presents safety risks because there is only one access point in and out of the room, the judge said.
“There’s no way out for the judge or commissioner if something were to happen,” Kuglitsch said. “Fortunately, it hasn’t happened there but the potential is there.”
Kuglitsch also said the renovations would allow for him to have a changing room because “my bailiff doesn’t like me wearing my robe through the courthouse because it’s a safety risk.” He also said there is a backlog in court cases, so two additional rooms would have alleviated that.
The U.S. economy shrank from April through June for a second straight quarter, contracting at a 0.9% annual pace and raising fears that the nation might be approaching a recession.
The decline that the Commerce Department reported Thursday in the gross domestic product—the broadest gauge of the economy—followed a 1.6% annual drop from January through March. Consecutive quarters of falling GDP constitute one informal, though not definitive, indicator of a recession.
The GDP report for last quarter pointed to weakness across the economy. Consumer spending slowed as Americans bought fewer goods. Business investment fell. Inventories tumbled as businesses slowed their restocking of shelves, shaving 2 percentage points from GDP.
Higher borrowing rates, a consequence of the Federal Reserve’s series of rate hikes, clobbered home construction, which shrank at a 14% annual rate. Government spending dropped, too.
The report comes at a critical time. Consumers and businesses have been struggling under the weight of punishing inflation and higher loan costs. On Wednesday, the Fed raised its benchmark rate by a sizable three-quarters of a point for a second straight time in its push to conquer the worst inflation outbreak in four decades.
The Fed is hoping to achieve a notoriously difficult “soft landing”: An economic slowdown that manages to rein in rocketing prices without triggering a recession.
Apart from the United States, the global economy as a whole is also grappling with high inflation and weakening growth, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent energy and food prices soaring. Europe, highly dependent on Russian natural gas, appears especially vulnerable to a recession.
In the United States, the inflation surge and fear of a recession have eroded consumer confidence and stirred anxiety about the economy, which is sending frustratingly mixed signals. And with the November midterm elections nearing, Americans’ discontent has diminished President Joe Biden’s public approval ratings and could increase the likelihood that the Democrats will lose control of the House and Senate.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell and many economists have said that while the economy is showing some weakening, they doubt it’s in recession. Many of them point, in particular, to a still-robust labor market, with 11 million job openings and an uncommonly low 3.6% unemployment rate, to suggest that a recession, if one does occur, isn’t here yet.
“The back-to-back contraction of GDP will feed the debate about whether the U.S. is in, or soon headed for, a recession,” said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets. “The fact that the economy created 2.7 million payrolls in the first half of the year would seem to argue against an official recession call for now.”
Still, Guatieri said, “the economy has quickly lost steam in the face of four-decade high inflation, rapidly rising borrowing costs and a general tightening in financial conditions.”
In the meantime, Congress may be moving toward approving action to fight inflation under an agreement announced Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. Among other things, the measure would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and the new revenue would be used to lower costs for seniors on medications.
In the wake of Thursday’s government report, Biden dismissed any notion that the data depicted an economy in recession. The administration has stressed that solid job growth and low unemployment show that the U.S. economy is still growing despite two consecutive quarterly declines in GDP. Speaking from the White House, Biden leaned on remarks that Powell and other economic leaders have made.
“Both Chairman Powell and many of the significant banking personnel and economists say we’re not in recession,” the president said.
The government’s first of three estimates of GDP for the April-June quarter marked a drastic weakening from the 5.7% growth the economy achieved last year. That was the fastest calendar-year expansion since 1984, reflecting how vigorously the economy roared back from the brief but brutal pandemic recession of 2020.
But since then, the combination of mounting prices and higher borrowing costs have taken a toll. The Labor Department’s consumer price index skyrocketed 9.1% in June from a year earlier, a pace not matched since 1981. And despite widespread pay raises, prices are surging faster than wages. In June, average hourly earnings, after adjusting for inflation, slid 3.6% from a year earlier, the 15th straight year-over-year drop.
Americans are still spending, though more tepidly. Thursday’s report showed that consumer spending rose at a 1% annual pace from April through June, down from 1.8% in the first quarter and 2.5% in the final three months of 2021.
Spending on goods like appliances and furniture, which had soared while Americans were sheltering at home early in the pandemic, dropped at a 4.4% annual rate last quarter. But spending on services, like airline trips and dinners out, rose at a 4.1% rate, indicating that millions of consumers are venturing out more.
Before accounting for surging prices, the economy actually grew at a 7.8% annual pace in the April-June quarter. But inflation wiped out that gain and then some and produced a negative GDP number.
Against that backdrop, Americans are losing confidence. Their assessment of economic conditions six months from now has reached its lowest point since 2013, according to the Conference Board, a research group.
The Fed’s hikes have already led to higher rates on credit cards and auto loans and to a doubling of the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage in the past year, to 5.5. Home sales, which are especially sensitive to interest rate changes, have tumbled.
Even with the economy recording a second straight quarter of negative GDP, many economists do not regard it as constituting a recession. The definition of recession that is most widely accepted is the one determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of economists whose Business Cycle Dating Committee defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.”
The committee assesses a range of factors before publicly declaring the death of an economic expansion and the birth of a recession—and it often does so well after the fact.
“If we aren’t yet in a recession, we soon will be,’’ said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist for the economic consulting firm Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc. “An economy rapidly losing momentum combined with aggressive monetary tightening is not a recipe for a soft landing or any other type of happy ending.’’
The oldest Catholic church in Rock County is set for a major facelift this fall.
Nearly nine months after St. Patrick Catholic Parish’s 30-foot-tall steeple—that had tilted four degrees to the east after 157 years of towering over the front entrance—was taken down, the church is gearing up for the first phase of renovations.
This phase will rehabilitate the church’s structure and aesthetic while making it safer and more accessible.
Last fall, the parish was at a crossroads with the steeple and other structural deficiencies, the Rev. Drew Olson said. Its financial council pondered either taking down failing aspects of the 1864 building or pursuing rehabilitation.
“We just reached a point where there were literally pieces of wood falling down … on the sidewalks,” Olson said. “The tower was leaning precariously, and you know, the bricks (were) coming loose in the walls.”
The steeple, the most publicly visible renovation, will be replaced with a replica next spring, Olson said. The bell that formerly sat at the bottom of the steeple now sits in the northwest corner of the church. Other repairs will start this fall, including shoring up the foundation because the support beam connections have loosened and the floor has started to warp. And, rotting wooden trims will be replaced.
Two accessible bathrooms will also be added to the main floor and a ramp will be added to the front entrance, all to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It took less than a year to raise nearly $1.8 million in private donations and five-year pledges from St. Patrick parishioners, Olson said in mid-July.The church still hopes to raise the full $2 million goal for the project and is waiting to see if it will be awarded a grant for the accessible features.
Olson said the hope is complete construction by next April, although he said that timeline could change based on weather and the desire of parishioners and church leaders not to disrupt the Christmas or Easter seasons.
A later phase of the project will update the interior, including updated pews, carpet and paint.
Olson said the speed at which the church was able to raise needed funds and to move forward with the renovations is a sign the project is in God’s plan, despite obstacles and challenges.
“The question is like, ‘Is this what God wants to have done?’ right? Is this really his will? Or is this just my will?” Olson said. “The fact that we’ve gotten to the point where we are, I think, is a testimony not just to that this is God’s will, but just to his goodness to all of us.”
It’s rare for churches to be able to go from concept to construction in such a short time frame.
Building Envelope Professionals architect and Director of Preservation Mark Stoner, who has been working on the St. Patrick’s design, said he’s often in limbo for years as churches dream first and consider finances later.
“(Olson) and the diocese and the parish already had this ready, so they knew what was at stake, and they had the money on hand. That is pretty atypical,” Stoner said. “It makes my job pretty easy—I don’t have to sit on my hands for a couple of years waiting for a congregation to be able to afford what they need to do.”
As Stoner was researching the building’s condition, he found it to be in decent condition considering its age. And while a steeple replica will be needed because of the original wood’s deterioration, much of the other renovation work is a desire to improve aesthetics.
Stoner said it’s nice to see a parish dedicated to keeping its building in good condition and preserving its history. He has seen the flip side in Chicago, where he is based. The Catholic archdiocese there has shuttered approximately one-third of its parishes over the last four years because of a lack of priests and aging buildings.
“It’s very apparent to me as somebody who’s working with the parish and (Olson) that they understand this wonderful gift that these Irish immigrants gave him 160 years ago,” Stoner said.
Getting the parishioners on board with the renovations was the easy part—it was the pledging of dollars that the church’s fundraising committee found to be an uphill battle.
While the church raised the money quickly, the thought of pledging for five years still made some people uncomfortable, committee member Bill Osmulski said.
Osmulski said some parishioners said ‘no’ to the pledge commitment, but still handed in checks for the project every week at mass.
“We would explain, ‘Hey, you just give us five bucks a week for the next five years,’ that adds up,” Osmulski said. “A lot of people couldn’t wrap their heads around that.”
Other parishioners surprised him, Osmulski said. Many single-income households and families with young children made those five-year pledges in the five-figure range.
While the church will still accept donations, its main fundraising campaign is done, and Osmulski said he feels the parish can close the remaining gap. For the next few years, advocacy will instead turn to making sure that as much as was pledged is actually given.
“We have to make sure that people don’t forget about us,” he said. “This is going to be one of the things where I won’t be breathing easy entirely until all the renovations are done and all the bills are paid.”