Watson says he is committed to DSS building, on a budget

Published 12:51 pm Friday, August 13, 2010

Editor’s note: Polk County commissioner Warren Watson submitted the following in response to recent controversy over costs for the new Polk Department of Social Services building. Commissioners approved by 3-2 a bid for grading for the new building earlier this month.

Delays in building a long overdue Polk County DSS building began with the 2008 election.&bsp; Prior to the election, the previous board of commissioners had already signed a purchase agreement for a two-acre building site in Columbus for the amount of $95,000. The new board closed on the lot, but quickly abandoned the site, as some members bowed to outside pressures to seek other locations.

The original construction budget at the newly-purchased site was $1.7 million. The site had proper zoning, water was available, and the county manager was able to negotiate a free sewer easement with Duke Energy. The site was conducive to a two-story structure with walk-out basement, for easy expansion. Parking spaces were adequate, and our resident architect/project Manager deemed the site to be a good location, close to other services typically utilized by DSS clients. &bsp;

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It was suggested that we widen a section of the street from our lot to Hwy 108, and that a red light might be required. Initial estimates for the road work and red light were approximately $150,000, and there was some question as to whether or not it was included in the original budget.&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;

Had we continued with the original site, the building could be complete by now, and DSS would have a new home. Instead, the majority of the board decided to abandon the newly acquired building site, and the delays began.

Recognizing that support for the site had eroded among the current board, and knowing the urgent need to replace the building, I reluctantly agreed to begin the search for another site, with one of the new commissioners. We looked at numerous properties, none of which was feasible. It was an exercise in futility. As more and more time was wasted, I became completely frustrated with the process. In the meantime, the board eliminated architectural fees from the 2009-2010 budget, conceding that the project would be delayed until the next budget year. The search continued, but given our new budgetary constraints, the board agreed to consider only sites currently owned by Polk County.

Instead of reconsidering our newly acquired two acres in town, one of our commissioners became interested in another site on Wolverine Trail, adjacent to the Polk County Recreation Park. The site was touted as easy-to-build, with potential for other future buildings. However, what really sold me was the assurance that we could build this one-story building, with no stairs or elevator, for the same price or less than our original $1.7 million budget, which included all site work, grading and paving. After many months of delays, we finally agreed to move forward with the Wolverine Trail site.

Fast-forward to now several months later. In the interim, we searched for and hired an architectural firm. We added architectural fees into the 2010-2011 budget. We agreed upon a project budget and construction schedule, and we agreed to separate the rough grading from the remainder of the contract, in an effort to make up for some of the lost time and to take advantage of good weather, etc…. Again, we were under the assurance by our project manager and county engineer that our budget was adequate. &bsp;

Then we received bids for Phase I – Rough Grading. For reference, the overall grading and paving budget was $170,000, of which $120,000 was estimated for rough grading. You can imagine our surprise when all of the bids were substantially higher than our budget. The top three were all over $250,000 (or more than twice the budget). The next lowest bid was around $239,000, and the low bid was substantially less at approximately $165,000, but still $45,000 (or 38%) over our budget. &bsp;

Red flags went up in my head immediately. I began to ask these and other questions: Why is our budget so far off? Is our overall budget adequate? Why is the low bidder so much lower than everyone else? (To me, that spells change orders.) Can the low bidder possibly complete the work for this price? And even if he can, where are we going to come up with the other $45,000? How much will it cost to complete Phase II -Grading and Paving? (After all, we only had $50,000 allotted for that portion of the work.)

Soon, most of my questions were answered. Our county engineer explained away some of the questions with regard to the differences in prices between the low bidder and the others, and assured us that the low bidder would honor his pricing. Our engineer and project manager also worked to reduce the scope of work in Phase I, and revised the price to $137,000, which was a substantial improvement, but still 14 percent over budget. &bsp;

Unfortunately, the answer to one of my other questions revealed that the revised Phase II – Grading & Paving price was $87,000 to $89,000 (or approximately 74 percent above the budgeted amount of $50,000). More red flags! Where are we going with this budget?!

At this point, I have very little confidence in our original budget.&bsp; Sure, these are just two of many line items, and certainly, all of the line items wont be this much over budget. Ill even concede that some items could come in under budget. However, on the night of the vote, I still had to ask myself how, in good conscience, I could vote to accept the Phase I bid and begin preliminary grading with this much uncertainty about the overall project budget.&bsp; After all, as a general contractor, it has been my experience that when a project starts over budget, it stays over budget.&bsp; &bsp;

So, I voted no! Not no to the DSS project; but instead, I voted no to moving forward without a clear picture of what we are going to spend. I would gladly vote Yes to a project that is within our agreed upon budgetary constraints. However, with these initial costs so far out of line with our budget, I will only feel comfortable moving forward once the entire project costs are known. &bsp;

Some say the additional time needed to complete the bidding process is an unnecessary delay.&bsp; I disagree! In my experience as a contractor, this type of planning typically reduces the overall building timeline, by getting decisions made upfront and eliminating the constant stop-and-go process associated with multiple change orders. In addition, we will know what we are spending before we spend it. We can make solid decisions before construction begins, without the added pressure of delaying the projects critical path schedule.

I believe that we can build this building within our agreed-upon budget, but only if we address these issues now, before the project begins. Starting this project without a clearly defined and realistic budget is like handing the architect and contractor a blank check and saying, Let us know what it cost when youre finished.

Citizens elected us to make good, sound decisions. They expect us to spend their tax dollars wisely. We have taken a lot of extra time to get this far. It is only prudent that we spend the additional time required to obtain proper and comprehensive bids from qualified contractors before we proceed further.

Going into this project blindly will only lead to change orders and cost overruns. We need to approach this project with our eyes wide open no surprises! &bsp;

I am still committed to building a new DSS building on a budget!

Warren Watson

County commissioner