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Ronnie Earle Building survives another close vote

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

A controversy-plagued building project survived yet one more do-or-die vote at Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.

The commissioners approved a contract modification to set the guaranteed maximum price to build the Ronnie Earle Building at $42,487,620. The building will serve as the headquarters for the District Attorney’s Office, whose staff is currently housed in different buildings downtown.

In March, the commissioners voted to direct staff to negotiate a contract totaling no more than $42 million with Flintco Constructive Solutions. That was supposed to end a long-running drama that featured intracounty conflict and a ballooning price tag.

On Tuesday, there was no apparent tension among county staff members, but the price had once again ticked up, prompting exasperation from the dais.

“I really am concerned about a half-a-million-dollar increase,” a frustrated Commissioner Ron Davis told County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes. “Who’s to say it won’t come back next week with another cost increase? We have to hold the line on spending. We have to do that.”

Grimes said she had worked with Flintco to take a scalpel to the original $45 million proposal presented in October and was able to get it down to the $42 million mark. However, Flintco submitted a revised proposal in April that had bulged to nearly $44 million.

In a memo that was part of the backup materials, Grimes explained that rising wages and material costs drove the number higher. One common refrain on Tuesday from the dais was that any further delays would only exacerbate the problem.

“Delay costs money. When the Commissioners Court moves slowly, then there are escalation costs,” warned County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

According to Grimes, Flintco’s newest proposal includes “shelling” two floors in the tower, essentially leaving them to be completed at a later date. However, the cost of finishing those floors in the future would ultimately push the final price tag of the building back up to $45 million.

That revelation did not sit well with Davis, who told Grimes, “I’m getting different prices beyond the not-to-exceed amount of the guaranteed maximum price. I support the project, I’m not against it, but I’m supporting it at a certain cost to the taxpayers.”

Grimes admitted that the price has become a “moving target” but noted that Flintco would be operating as a construction manager at risk (CMAR), which means the company will pay out of its own pocket for most cost overruns. However, Grimes also pointed out that certain “unforeseen circumstances” could stall the project and raise costs for the county, such as the discovery of a burial ground beneath the site.

“Heaven help us if there are,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “I don’t think there will be a lot of unforeseen things. Hopefully you are not going to find Jimmy Hoffa over there or something.”

Potential dead bodies aside, Daugherty aired his skepticism that this would be the last time the cost of the building would be modified, a position he argued when he voted against the project in March.

For her part, Eckhardt restated her previous position — that she was opposed to the project from the very beginning, but that it is too late in the game to throw in the towel.

“Since considerable dollars have already been spent on this project, I’m keenly aware and very concerned as well that we are building this building at any cost,” Eckhardt said. “I’m grateful we’re doing a CMAR, because at least I know that the current plans in the documents will cost a specific number and that will be that, in all likelihood — unless something outside the control of the contractor and the (county) comes to light.“

Eckhardt also noted that county staff members, including Grimes and Facilities Management Department Director Roger El Khoury, had settled their disagreement over the cost of the project that had threatened to derail it earlier this year.

“We now come to a kumbaya of what the true cost of what this court decided to do,” Eckhardt said. “To turn back now would be to waste considerable county dollars and still not address the space needs of the District Attorney’s Office. We would still need to address the space needs of the District Attorney’s Office, but it would be much more expensive.”

At that point, Davis conceded that he would still begrudgingly support the modification, but added, “I’m going to stand steadfast on this one.”

The resolution passed with the support of Eckhardt, Davis and Commissioner Margaret Gómez. Daugherty voted against it, and Commissioner Brigid Shea abstained.

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