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Commissioners may split management of new building

Monday, November 15, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Travis County appears headed toward the use of a hybrid project management scheme for the building renovations at its new 700 Lavaca Street property. Though county commissioners court members decided to hold off on specific instructions until their meeting Tuesday, county staff were directed to begin laying the groundwork for that type of effort.


If adopted, the plan would make room for a private contractor to handle some of the more prominent features of the building. County facilities staff, however, would be responsible for the bulk of the 16-floor facility.


Both commissioners and an attorney with expertise in construction law expressed some hesitation about the idea. Still, the staff directive found unanimous support.


University of Texas professor and construction law expert William Allensworth cautioned the commissioners against relying too heavily on in-house staff. “There’s layers of complication with this (project),” he said. “My question to the Commissioners Court is whether this is one that’s really appropriate for the skill set that would be corporate facilities.


“If ever there were (a project) that was appropriate for the private sector … a remodeling like this (would be it),” he added.


According to Biscoe’s proposal, the private firm would manage the work on the basement and the first and second floors. County facilities would take on everything else. A request for proposal process will determine who the private contractor will be.


In Fact Daily reported that the first and second floors of the building may hold deeper challenges for whoever ends up managing their construction. This is thanks to the predicted layout of those areas and the construction of the commissioners’ courtroom, which will require special technology skills (see In Fact Daily, July 7).


Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt worried last week about the conflict-resolution role that the hybrid approach could set up for the court. She called for her colleagues to come up with a clear dispute-resolution process.


“I think we’ve got to be really mindful that we are not fast, decisive, consistent, and have one clear line of communication since there’s five of us,” she said. “If something goes south it will be very difficult for us to have a level of discipline over these two, frankly, competing shops on this single project … There will be conflict and if we don’t figure out how to handle it efficaciously and speedily and with efficiency, this Court is not ideally suited to be a project manager.”


In their final direction, the court did instruct County Purchasing Officer Cyd Grimes to prepare to handle most minor disputes.


For County Judge Sam Biscoe, the hybrid idea represented the best possible approach. “It’s a big project,” he told the court. “There’s a whole lot of work to be done here and if we can pull it off, the cooperative, collaborative working relationship that we should get, I think, long term we’ll be better off.”


Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez agreed with Biscoe. Still, she argued for the abandoned tactic of having county facilities bid with other interested parties. “I think it’s … a check on the internal folks by the public to see how well are you performing, how well are you using the resources that are available to you.”


County Facilities Director Roger El Khoury has pushed hard for his department to be in charge of project management at 700 Lavaca. He was initially rejected by the court, which refused to award those responsibilities without some amount of vetting.


Biscoe – who has spearheaded the campaign to examine the idea of using a private contractor – initially was inclined to have county facilities submit a bid along with any private contractors who were interested in the project. That idea was rejected by an informal survey of industry experts, who told the county that it wouldn’t be the best approach.


After the hearing, Biscoe told In Fact Daily that he wasn’t overly concerned about any conflict that might be set up with the hybrid arrangement. “You’ve got 16 floors over there including the basement, so there will be plenty of work,” he said. “Early on it may be necessary to work a little harder for a smooth operation, but after that I would think that everything would be fine.”

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