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Travis Commissioners debate how to manage Lavaca office project

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

County Commissioners haven’t forgotten the fiasco associated with the building of the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, which opened behind schedule 10 years ago.


“It was an ever-living nightmare,” Commissioner Ron Davis recalled during last week’s commissioners court meeting.


News reports back then indicated the project came in $23 million over budget and led to the courtroom.


Davis and Commissioner Margaret Gómez, who returned to the dais about two weeks ago after a months-long absence to recover from heart surgery, dug up the debacle at the meeting as the court discussed how to manage its next big project: transforming the newly acquired 15-story building at 700 Lavaca St. into a showcase space that will serve as the county seat.


The question county commissioners are grappling with is whether they should hire an external project manager to oversee the work, give the job to the in-house Facilities Management Department, or FMD, which was created in the aftermath of the criminal justice center project, or go for something in between. Some commissioners are worried FMD doesn’t have the breadth of experience necessary for this type of project.


The court is expected to take up the issue again today.


Roger El Khoury, director of the Facilities Management Department, wants the job. He made his case to the court by emphasizing that his staff has successfully handled 257 county projects of varying sizes over the past decade.


If the court decides to have the department manage the 700 Lavaca renovations, it would be FMD’s first high-rise building, one with premier office space and tenants to keep happy.


“The first time we started saying 700 Lavaca, our eyes were on it,” El Khoury told the court. “We are very competent to do the work, and we are very eager to do the work.”


However, at least a couple of commissioners expressed concern.


“It’s a very different building from any of the ones I’ve seen the county has worked on,” Commissioner Karen Huber, who is pushing for the county to hire an external project manager to oversee the renovations, told the court.


Among the factors playing into her decision is that the building currently has tenants. She also told the court that the job will be full time and she is concerned that, with other projects in the pipeline, the Facilities Management Department may be stretched thin.


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said she isn’t convinced that having an outside project manager is the “silver bullet.” However, she said that while the county has developed considerable internal talents that are serving it well within certain categories of architectural and engineering projects within the county, she is “mindful of not asking a jazz dancer to critique a ballet dancer.”


“We are not well-versed in doing a Class A office building that contains a number of tenants that are not government, not beholden to us in any way, for whom we really need to retain,” Eckhardt said. “I don’t know whether a third-party manager would address these concerns, but I am concerned that we are not well-versed in tenant management; we are not well versed in the architecture and maintenance of Class A high rises; and we are not well versed in conflict resolution between ballet dancer types of these sorts of spaces and contractors for the building of these sorts of spaces.”


Davis, however, threw his full support behind FMD, saying he wanted internal control of the project from beginning to end, so as not to have a repeat of the criminal justice center problem. He said he believed the in-house management department had the skills necessary to get the job done.


“Otherwise, why do we need the staff of FMD, if they can’t do the job,” he said. “Then why are we paying you?”

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