New Polk DSS building gets green light despite controversy over costs

Published 1:09 pm Thursday, August 5, 2010

The first contract to build a new Polk County Department of Social Services was awarded Monday night.

After fairly lengthy arguments about the cost, rebidding, and whether or not to pre-qualify general contractors moves that would have set back the construction schedule commissioners Ray Gasperson, Rene McDermott and Cindy Walker voted to go forward now.

By a 3-2 vote, the county board awarded a contract to Thompson Contractors Inc. for $224,132 to grade the entrance road and construction site for a new DSS building near Polk County Middle School. Grading work is expected to begin soon.

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Commissioners Warren Watson and Tommy Melton on each point of discussion leading up to the vote Monday argued that the board should not act until new bids could be received for the entire project, including grading.

They wanted to use a bidding process in which contractors are pre-qualified, a step Watson said could weed out unqualified bidders.

Both measures would have only caused delays of a few months, Watson said. He pointed to problems with past construction projects in Polk County the courthouse renovations, a wall at the high school and the library air-conditioning systems and Watson said he wanted to be careful not to repeat those mistakes.

McDermott, Gasperson and Walker, however, said they were following the schedule and the bidding process the board had already agreed upon, including splitting the grading contract out as a separate bid.

Further, the three said they were reassured by the advice offered Monday by Jim Powell, of ADW Architects, and county attorney Mike Egan. Both Powell and Egan told the board that the general contractors qualifications could be discovered through the traditional bidding process, without adding pre-qualification.

We have needed this new building for over 20 years, McDermott said. The ceiling fell in (in DSS current offices in the Jervey-Palmer building) in a heavy rain. It is beyond belief that we subject them to being in that building for even one additional day.

McDermott suggested that anyone who has not already seen the current DSS offices go and visit the Jervey-Palmer building and see the conditions for themselves.

My concern is that we dont know what the building costs are yet, Watson said. I think we should consider rebidding the total project, to get a realistic view of the total cost. It has been my experience when a project starts out over budget, it stays over budget.

Commissioners last month tabled the grading bid when the price came in at $267,564. 32 percent over the budget estimate of $170,000. At that time, the board instructed county engineer Dave Odom to work with Thompson Contractors of Rutherfordton to find cost savings.

Odom came back Monday with a total bid of $224,132, a $42,000 reduction.

Still, commissioner Melton suggested that the bid be thrown out and rebid with the architect in charge of the total project. Commissioner Watson said while there was urgency in building a new DSS building, the county should not act in haste.

There is no haste, chairman Walker responded. The (grass) seeding time on this schedule is perfect, and we are moving exactly as we agreed to move, on the timeline we set in February.

Having grass established heads off erosion problems, which can be costly to fix, Walker pointed out.

The original budget for grading was obviously unrealistically low, she said.

That was a guestimate, she said. It is the guestimate which should be thrown out, not the actual bid.

Odom cut costs in the new grading plan by using a somewhat steeper entrance road to the building parking lot, reducing the amount of dirt to be moved, Odom said.

The new grading plan, however, will limit the future building plans at the site, county manager Ryan Whitson said.

The original grading plan had space for the 11,950-square-foot DSS building and room for a future building, if needed, beside it, not quite as large.

The new plan would only allow a building under about 5,000 square feet to be built beside DSS, Whitson said. This additional building space, in my thoughts, was never intended to expand DSS. It was just to have in case the county has to be more involved with mental health and we have to have a building for that. A 5,000-square-foot building would be more than ample for mental health services.

Watson said he doubted the county would need any additional buildings for the next 20 years, and said he was less concerned about the expansion plans changing than the cost of the current project.