Marion County spending $14.3 million to construct new Health and Human Services building

Marion County officials are spending $14.3 million to build a new Health and Human Services building next to the existing location on Northeast Center Street. 

County officials say it’s a one-time investment that could help save hundreds of thousands in annual costs for space currently leased across several different locations.

The Marion County Board of Commissioners on March 30 approved a contract with Triplett Wellman, Inc. for the new building, expected to open in roughly two years.

With site preparation, the building is expected to cost a total of around $16.19 million, and will primarily be funded by a $10 million loan to be paid back over 10 or 15 years, according to budget documents provided by the county.

Commissioner Colm Willis told Salem Reporter he felt the cost was justified as a “long-term cost-savings account.”

“We pay millions of dollars a year in lease payments, and we have no control over the increase in those costs just like residents are seeing their rents increase,” he said. “By investing this money now, we’ll be able to control our costs long term when it comes to providing these services.”

The county currently provides most health department services, including intellectual and developmental disabilities services, communicable disease control and the Women, Infants and Children office, at its building on 3180 Center St. N.E.

But other health offices are scattered across the city, offering drug treatment, crisis, and youth and family services.

Marion County currently pays a total of around $593,400 per year on four other leases for such services at Beverly Avenue Northeast and Pence Loop Southeast which officials plan on discontinuing, Matthews said.

Ryan Matthews, health and human services administrator for the county, said the existing 45,000-square-foot, three-level building is difficult to get around. People getting flu shots or vaccines at the public health clinic have to then go to a different suite and wait in the lobby if they want to get service at the WIC office. 

“That’s not a great experience for people,” he said.

The new single-floor, 31,800-square-foot building won’t replace the existing one but would move the county’s Public Health Division under the same roof and offer multiple services on a single campus. It would offer walk-in services such as immunization or birth and death certificates, while the older building would focus more on referrals and people already enrolled in services such as outpatient mental health treatment or intellectual and developmental disabilities services. 

Matthews said the new building will have a single lobby and reception for all services.  “We will be able to basically wrap services around the individual when they can come in the building and treat them, and it won’t feel like such a siloed experience that feels almost like whole totally different entities you’re working with,” he said.

Matthews said the current building was built in the early 1970s. “It was built to be sort of on the cutting edge of architecture and not necessarily built to be the most functional health care space,” he said. 

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Marion County Health and Human Services building on Center Street (Courtesy/Marion County)

Willis said he also voted to approve the project because the county has received a boost in public health dollars in the past couple of years. “This is an opportunity for us to make this investment that we may not have again in the future,” he said. 

The construction project is not funded by the county’s general fund or any local taxpayer dollars, Matthews said. There are no current plans to hire new staff to work in the building.

Matthews said the Health and Human Services Department’s budget is around $100 million per year. “So when you think about the $14 million, it is a lot, but we’re also a pretty large department with a lot of funding sources coming in to kind of handle that,” he said. 

For the new building, the county has budgeted around $1.85 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year and $14.64 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year, with $10 million of the latter to be paid for with a loan the county is taking out to be paid back by program operations.

The remaining costs will be paid for by reserves from fees the county charges to the state, Medicaid and private insurers, unspent state grant dollars and occupancy costs charged to programs in the building.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.