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By Kern County General Services Division
BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Plans for an artistic new building to house the county's computers in a more safe location are drawing the ire of the Board of Supervisors and have spawned a significant debate about how the county's bidding process works.
At issue is Kern County's planned Information Technology building. At the moment the project is $3.2 million over budget and -- with few good options available to address that -- trapped in limbo.
Plans show artfully stacked roofs sweeping out to shade sheets of plate-glass windows and a wraparound balcony off a large staff area featuring 26-foot ceilings.
At first glance the artifice seems a bit much for a taxpayer-funded building designed by a county architect to house banks of computer servers and the workstations of the tech wizards who manage them.
But county property management officials say the design is functional, with design elements aimed at cutting the power costs for air conditioning and lighting.
The problem, they say, is that the county gambled that construction bids would come in low. They didn't
PROJECT SENT BACK
Kern County originally had $11.5 million in the bank, part of a large bond issued in 2009, to build the IT structure at the county's emergency services complex on Mount Vernon Avenue.
The IT Services division is currently housed in the basement of a building on Truxtun Avenue. It's in an area prone to flooding, not good for a bunch of computers.
Moving the building to Mount Vernon would also put it on the county's emergency operations campus alongside Kern's disaster center, fire and public safety dispatchers and communication systems.
County General Services officials knew the cost could be more like $16.3 million. Armed with a design that had already been paid for, they went to bid anyway.
"The hope was it was going to come in at the lower end of the range," said Assistant County Administrative Officer for General Services Jeff Frapwell.
The lowest bid, from Bakersfield contractor S.C. Anderson, did come back in low, at $15.3 million.
But it wasn't low enough.
"They pulled the triggers and put it out to bid without telling us," Supervisor Mike Maggard says now.
The board approves all projects before they go out to bid, Frapwell said, and this was no different.
But General Services didn't alert the board that there was a wide range of bid estimates and that the high end of that range was sharply higher than budget.
Frapwell now says that should have happened.
With contingency reserves and other ancillary costs added in, the project was actually $6.2 million over budget.
Frapwell said that, despite the fact that the county had already invested $1.8 million into plans and preparations for the structure, he sent a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 6 that it reject all the bids and redesign the building.
Supervisors didn't go for that.
They told him just to strip the project down and bring them something they could approve.
Frapwell said his staff worked with S.C. Anderson to remove a planned security fence, parking spaces, landscaping, a driveway and decorative finishes on the building's facade, slashing $2.15 million off the project.
They also dropped the county's project reserve fund, inspection cost estimate and project management costs by $937,277 for a total savings of nearly $3.1 million.
Then Frapwell took the project -- still $3.2 million over budget -- back to supervisors Aug. 27.
He didn't get a warm reception.
Supervisors grilled Frapwell. They wanted to know why a public building came in so far beyond the county's ability to pay for it.
And they criticized what they saw as an overly artistic plan for a taxpayer-funded building.
"The cost of this building is a result of our design," Maggard said at the Aug. 27 meeting. "Had we designed the building differently, we wouldn't have this cost overrun."
The IT building, Frapwell said, is definitely over-designed when compared to the structure a private firm would create to meet the same function.
But that, he said, is due to the energy-efficiency and system requirements the county -- as a government agency -- is required to meet.
Those were the embellishments that drew criticism from the supervisors.
Over the staff room are three tiers of roofs, stepping down like stairs and flared outward like flower-petals.
Between each roof and the next are banks of windows -- each protected from the direct rays of the sun by the roof above but open to indirect light.
Frapwell said the goal was to let those windows pour light into the middle of the staff area, reducing the need for artifical light while minimizing the heat that would come from the sun pounding directly on the windows.
"We could design a cheaper building that wouldn't be as energy efficient. That costs you more down the road," Frapwell said.
A simple box, the most efficient design of a building, would need expensive window treatments and shades to keep out the heat, he said.
That would mean more internal lights and, since those lights generate heat, more air conditioning costs.
"While it appears to be pure form, it has a very specific function," he said.
Supervisors, on Aug. 27, refused to put more money into the building.
But, arguing that it wasn't fair to S.C. Anderson to abandon the bid, they told Frapwell to make more cuts.
Those cuts are being explored now, Frapwell said. Other county projects are being looked at to see if their funding can be shifted to the IT project.
But the county can't go too far in those changes, Supervisor Mick Gleason worries.
"You can only down-scope so far on the process," Gleason said. "When does it become a new building?"
At that point the county could have to re-bid the project, putting S.C. Anderson out a lot of time and effort.
Redesigning the building would also cost the county some portion of the $1.8 million used to fund the architectural and structural engineering work.
Another option, Frapwell said, is to build the building but only as a box.
Computer servers and a few staff could be moved to the site from the current location in a basement at 1215 Truxtun Ave.
The rest of the building would be left vacant until the county could budget the money to finish the job.
Both Maggard and Gleason remain concerned.
"Whether the building is over-designed or under-designed," Gleason said, "my problem is the way we put it out to bid."
Maggard said he struggles with the fact that the General Services Division went forward with a bid when IT knew the county didn't have the money to pay for it if it hit the bid estimate.
"My board has not been told how that will not happen again," Maggard said.
Frapwell said staff has put in place systems to reduce the chance this might happen in the future.
"There are plenty of lessons learned," he said.
The county will not go out to bid if it thinks the project will be over-budget -- not without talking to supervisors first and having a plan to handle high bids, Frapwell said.
Options could include creating a plan for how to deal with over-budget bids by, for example, creating alternative bids.
Bidders would provide costs for a basic version of a project as well as a series of enhancements if the county could afford them.
Frapwell said projects the county seeks bids for only rarely come in over-budget.
But this time, he said, "We could have done better and we should have done better."