The Guilford County Board of Commissioners have had enough and they’re not going to take it anymore.
That was the crystal clear message the board sent to county staff at a Thursday, Oct. 4 afternoon work session when the board slammed on the brakes for a $17 million project to renovate the old Guilford County jail in downtown Greensboro. Commissioners informed Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing and other staff that county staff simply cannot continue to bring projects to the board that cost millions more than original estimates.
Prior to the work session, staff had asked the Board of Commissioners to approve – at the board’s regular evening meeting on Thursday, Oct. 4 – the $17 million expenditure to hire the lowest bidder for the old jail renovation project. However, instead, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson pulled the item from the agenda and scheduled a sudden and specially called work session that afternoon to discuss the project.
The renovations to the old jail would prepare the building to house the Sheriff’s Department’s administrative headquarters and the State of North Carolina’s probation and parole court service workers. However, the $17 million price tag was more than double the estimates the board was given when they began discussing the project. Commissioners were also concerned that, even with that high price tag, this $17 million project didn’t include the demolition of the current Sheriffs Department headquarters – the Otto Zenke building on the same block as the old jail and the new county jail – nor did it include the construction of a planned parking lot to serve the new headquarters.
The commissioners’ hard line seemed to surprise many in Guilford County government – including Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes – who said later when he learned of the decision that he doesn’t consider it a very wise move to put the project on hold.
The lowest bid came in at $17.3 million while three other bids came in about $2 million over that. The bids are good for 90 days.
At the work session, several commissioners came down hard on staff because the price had risen very sharply for the old jail project, and because staff’s initial estimates on several other major county projects had missed the mark in a big way.
Several commissioners said the extreme price rises in the estimated costs of the old jail project are unacceptable. They also insisted that a better method must be established in order to bring them more accurate projections of capital project costs.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips pointed out that the cost of renovating the old jail had now gotten so high that it was approaching the cost of constructing a brand new building on the same spot.
Dan Durham, the county’s brand new facilities director, gave the presentation on the project to the board. It was his first presentation to the commissioners and it was something of a trial by fire – though everyone in the Blue Room in the Old Guilford County Court House that afternoon realized that Durham just arrived in Guilford County government so he was only the messenger of bad news and not the cause of it.
The county’s previous facilities director, Robert McNiece, resigned unexpectedly earlier this year.
Commissioner Hank Henning said at the work session that he realized Durham had just taken the job but he did want to know why, at least according to his memory, the price had risen while some components of the job had been removed.
At the meeting various staff members said that construction costs were shooting up due to the improved economy and they added that it was very difficult to get a good idea of actual cost until one went through the design phase, knew more specifics about the projects and put them out for bid.
Lawing said that initially staff had taken available bond money and distributed those funds across projects in a way they hoped would cover costs, but that was done before the design work or before finalizing the scope of those projects, he added.
“As it turns out, that was wishful thinking,” Lawing told the board.
Later, when Lawing was giving estimates for another project, Commissioner Carolyn Coleman shot back, “Ya’ll don’t do to well with estimates.”
Everyone laughed, but it was an uneasy laughter given the nature of the situation.
The board recently approved $15 million for a new Guilford County Animal Shelter that originally was projected to cost $9 or $10 million. One option staff brought to the board was for an $18 million shelter – even though commissioners had only allocated about $12.6 million for the project.
Phillips said the cost of the old jail renovation project had risen by millions even since early summer of this year.
“It feels a little bit like the same song different verse in regard to the discussion we’ve had on other projects,” Phillips said.
“Initially it was about an $8.5 million investment,” he said.
Phillips said that, in late May, the board agreed to increase that to $14 million for the jail renovation and now staff was asking for several million more.
“Now we are hearing three million more than we agreed to already and it does not include the teardown of Otto Zenke and additional parking,” Phillips said.
Phillips added that he was one who at the start of the process thought the old jail probably should come down and the board should consider a new facility.
“From my perspective, as we sit today based on what we’re hearing, my appetite for this project as it’s being presented is diminishing rapidly,” Phillips said.” And I’d be interested in what the alternatives look like.“
The board also quizzed Guilford County Emergency Services Jim Albright about a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance center the county is planning on building. They wanted to know if the cost on that project were going to come in more than expected as well.
“This is bidders market,” Albright said. “Unfortunately, I am hesitant to estimate what that project will come in at.”
That does not bode well.
Barnes, who’s on a state standards and training commission that caused him to miss the work session, said this week that he would be discussing the matter with the board. He said the delay may mean even higher prices down the line since these days the cost of labor is going up and he knows builders who currently can’t even find workers at $15 an hour.
The sheriff also said one option discussed – repairing the Otto Zenke building – didn’t make sense.
He said there are structural issues, the building is subject to flooding and there are too many problems with it to list.
“It’s too cold in winder to hot in summer,” the sheriff added. “This building was built in 1967.”