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County seeking bids for renovations at 700 Lavaca

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 by Michael Kanin

A divided Travis County Commissioners Court has elected to pit outside management firms against its own Facilities Management staff in a competition to choose the project manager for renovations at the county’s new 700 Lavaca Street offices. 


The 3-2 vote, taken at Tuesday’s Commissioner Court meeting, sets up a process by which the county’s in-house facilities team will have to battle interested private firms over their respective capabilities and fees. Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis and Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez argued against the majority and sought to award the deal directly to Travis County’s Facilities Management staff.


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt and Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber joined County Judge Sam Biscoe on his motion for the limited competitive process. In court, Biscoe argued that the bids would be the only way to measure the potential cost savings the county would earn by using its in-house team.


“If there is a way for us to quantify savings by virtue of Facilities Management (handling) the project, this is how we do it,” he said. “Otherwise we don’t have anything to compare in-house work to what it would cost if we (contracted out).”


He added that cost would be one factor in the process. Other criteria will be decided in two weeks when the bid solicitation for outside firms comes back before the commissioners.


Still, that wasn’t enough to sway Gomez. “Again, I’ll have to vote against that,” she said. “I’m really truly interested in having savings for our taxpayers. I think we spent a good amount of time, in the past, putting together a facilities department that is professional and had all of the skills that we needed for some of these projects.”


For his part, Davis agreed. “When it actually comes down to the professionals that we have here on staff right now, I think they are very professional,” he said. “We have them in-house and we already pay them—we already pay them….It just appears to me that we should use that (which) we are already paying for because they do have the professional expertise to be project managers.”


Huber cited her real estate experience and said that she could see problems if the facilities department managed the 700 Lavaca project. “First of all, I think we have very well qualified staff in many areas,” she said. “(But) I see flags that I want to be sure that we’ve dotted the eyes and crossed the tees for. One of the concerns I have is the potential of a conflict if we have overall project management by facilities and (while they are)…performing the work…while we’ve got outside work on other floors. I think that will help with clarity on that.”


She also repeated a concern previously expressed by Eckhardt (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 7, 2010): “We have millions of dollars of income stream with our tenants in this building and the ability to manage renovations in a building with existing tenants is a very, very challenging project,” Huber added. “It’s not like any of the projects we’ve done in the county any time in recent history. And protecting those tenants—keeping those tenants—is critical to taxpayer dollars.” 


Facilities Management director Roger El Kouhry, who seemed upset by the court’s decision, declined comment.


After the hearing, Biscoe told In Fact Daily that he wasn’t concerned about the effect that the court’s decision would have on the staff “long term.”


“Immediately, I think their preference was that we go ahead and make the decision to get them to manage the project today,” he said. “This was kind of a compromise. You know, cost is important but there are some other factors that we need to consider also—as well as trying to get a fair and objective selection committee to help.”


The informal nature of the process means that county officials don’t have to officially advertise the call for bids. Still, Biscoe added that the economy, the scale of the project, and the potential exposure that would go with it could garner the county as many as 10 bids.


“The market is such that even if you focus locally, today, you probably will get about as good a price (as in a formal process),” he said.

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