DECATUR — A decision about whether the county will move forward with a $7.5 million sustainability campus on the city’s west side is likely still months away, pending results of a study being funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Some county leaders have balked at plans for the center, raising questions about whether the county can afford to build and operate the center. The foundation, which donated $1.2 million to buy the 109-acre site last year, plans to hire an independent firm to conduct a feasibility study to assess financial aspects of the deal and answer those concerns.
“Our goal is to ensure that our contribution is used in a manner that does not burden the taxpayers of Macon County,” said Buffett, a former Macon County sheriff who has donated millions to Decatur-area causes in recent years.
Buffett in an email last week did not identify the firm but confirmed that one has been selected. He said the study would likely take two months to complete. A start date has not yet been set.
Plans for the sustainability campus began last year. Officials have said it would include drive-through recycling, a solar farm, environmental offices, a compost center and community gardens.
The county board in October agreed to rezone the property in the 1100 block of North Wyckles Road near Harristown to accommodate the center. But after Republicans took a 12-9 advantage on the board in the November elections, momentum slowed as some board members questioned whether the center could sustain itself financially.
The $7.5 million estimated cost to build the facility has grown from an initial estimate of $4.5 million. Officials said the extra money was needed to comply with regulatory requirements, among other factors.
Macon County Board Chairman Kevin Greenfield said the study would tell county officials important details such as how much compost production is needed each year to see if the campus will pay for itself. The firm will also be able to determine the expenses of running the campus.
“We do not want to rush these plans,” he said. “We need to make sure it makes sense financially hence why the study is necessary.”
Greenfield said the review could cost up to $80,000, though an exact total isn’t available yet. The Buffett Foundation first announced in February that it would pay for the study.
Buffett said his foundation will not have future involvement with the project beyond the initial donation and cost of the study.
Officials previously said the construction cost would be covered through a 20-year bond issued by the Decatur Public Building Commission, which manages county facilities. The plan was to pay off the loan using an existing tax levy, with no increases to existing tax rates.
But Greenfield has said he was unsure if the county could afford to move forward with the plans.
"Thanks to Howard Buffett, we will be able to look at the study when it's finished and see if it makes sense for our county," he said.