District attorney moves into new Downtown Merced digs

The Merced County District Attorney's Office found its way into some new digs this week, a move that's expected to improve efficiency in the department and save the county money.

By moving the department's offices into a centralized location, District Attorney Larry Morse II said the change is for the better.

Before opening the doors to the new building at 550 W. Main St. on Monday, the office was spread out in four buildings.

"I had managed after a couple years to at least get all four buildings on 20th Street over three blocks, but it was a management nightmare and just chock-full of inefficiencies," Morse said. "Our jobs involve a great deal of coordination."

County officials also expect the building to be a huge cost savings for taxpayers. Relocating the district attorney's office will save more than $350,000 a year in lease payments on the four rented buildings, said Angelo Lamas, management analyst for the county. The lease payments came out of the general fund.

Since Morse became district attorney in 2006, county taxpayers have spent about $2 million in rent.

Some have criticized county leaders for spending money to buy and retrofit the structure during a recession, but the money came from a fund that can be used only for such projects. It can't be used to pay employees.

'Good financial move'

The building, which previously served as County Bank's headquarters, cost the county about $7 million to buy and $3.4 million to remodel, said Richard Schwarz, Merced County's assistant public works director. The work was paid for with tobacco securitization funds designated for improvements to county facilities.

The interior of the building was completely remodeled, he said.

"We tore it down to the structure because the layout that was there was completely ineffective and nonfunctional for the way the DA operates," Schwarz said. "The building was gutted -- there was nothing left but structure and exterior walls."

Morse described the deal as one of the best the county has ever had.

"The money, as former CEO Dee Tatum used to tell me, can only be used for 'sticks and bricks,' " Morse said. "This is a good financial move."

Morse had explored alternatives, but the new location turned out to be the best option, he said.

"The county had considered at one point building a building, but the cost of it was $17 million or $18 million, so this was done cheaper, faster," Morse said.

Soon after Morse took over as district attorney, a fire and flood displaced employees from county-owned facilities.

"We were really nomads looking for a place to land," he said, adding that having everyone under one roof will help pull the department together.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.