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Mecklenburg school tab rises to $152 mil in latest bids / November 27, 2019

Construction on Mecklenburg County’s new consolidated secondary school complex is in limbo as Mecklenburg County supervisors contemplate whether to increase the construction project budget by some $32 million after the second round of bids from contractors came in over budget and pushed the total cost for the project to $152.4 million.

Last year, county supervisors borrowed $120 million for the project based on estimates by lead architect Billy Upton of Ballou, Justice Upton. The $120 million covered the estimated cost of construction, land purchases, consultant fees, inspections, infrastructure and other project costs and fees.

At a meeting of the Joint Education Committee on Monday, School Board trustees asked supervisors to accept the low bid of $124,950,000 for construction of the building, and to come up with an additional $27.4 million in other project-related costs for a total capital budget of $152,380,000.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichol also asked supervisors to call a special meeting of their board to vote on the request so the school division could hold a ground-breaking ceremony on Dec. 20.

Supervisor David Brankley replied, “We don’t have that amount of money in a suitcase. We’ll have to go to the bank or find money another way.” Board Chair Glenn Barbour also would not commit to the Dec. 20 deadline. “We need to give staff time to do their homework and bring back recommendations” for funding the additional $32.4 million request, he said.

“To go into the Dec. 9 meeting [the next regular meeting of the Board of Supervisors] or a special meeting without a roadmap would be problematic,” Barbour said.

On Wednesday, trustees received project bids from four general contractors, Cleveland Construction, Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., Branch Builds of Roanoke, Charles Perry Partners, also of Roanoke, and Howard Shockey & Sons, Inc. from Winchester in the second round of bids from general contractors. The first round was rejected in September after responses ranged from a low of $129,600,000 to a high of $137,554,848.

This was the second time that Cleveland Construction, Branch Builds and Charles Perry Partners submitted proposals for the project, and they managed to shave between $5 million and $11 million from their previous bids. That followed work by school officials and architects to trim $5 million in design elements that do not impact either the size of the school or quality of the final product, according to Nichols.

Once again, Cleveland Construction emerged as the low bidder, with their bid of $124,950,000 covering the cost of building a middle school auxiliary gym for $1.25 million. The other three proposals, from Howard Shockey & Sons, Charles Perry Partners, and Branch Builds, were for $126,533,900, $126,787,000 and $127,935,000, respectively.

Beyond the construction budget, the school division needs $10.8 million to pay architects and engineers, $1.4 million for the construction management team, $6.3 million as a contingency fund, $621,000 for testing and inspection fees, $597,238 in infrastructure costs (to move existing electric lines, fiber optic cable and utilities), $3.6 for furniture, fixtures and equipment and technology, and $2.3 million in other project costs to complete the project. Supervisors previously spent $1.8 million for the school site.

Nichols said the biggest surprise to him during this process was the increase in square foot construction costs. “When we started this project, they were $280 per square foot and now they are $361 per square foot. No one could anticipate that jump.”

After noting his continued support for the new school, Brankley warned Nichols and trustees against coming back to the board for more money a third time. Supervisors initially committed $100 for the consolidated secondary school campus. At the request of the school division, that budget was upped to $120 million — and now the School Board is asking for a $152.4 million budget.

“It looks like you’re going for the big toy and leaving off the other stuff,” including upgrades to elementary schools and pay increases for teachers and school staff, said Brankley. “It will be very difficult for you to come back [again].”

Brankley also worried that the county’s current revenue stream could “dry up” before it sets aside money to renovate its aging elementary school buildings. School trustee Glenn Edwards replied, “We [the school division] don’t know what the revenue stream is, only the supervisors have that information. We look to you for that.”

Edwards also noted, “the county has been fiscally conservative for a long time,” with one of the lowest real estate tax rates in Virginia, at 42 cents per $100 in property value.

School Board Vice Chair Gavin Honeycutt reminded supervisors that Mecklenburg County keeps taxes low by kids are taking classes in “inferior school buildings. That’s not balanced to me,” he said.

Trustee Lindell Palmer worried about escalating costs as the project drags on. “I fear that the brick that costs $3 this year could cost $4 or more next year. I know this [the requested budget amount] is not a drop in the bucket, but it won’t get any better and it’s certainly not likely to go any lower.”

Nichols encouraged supervisors and the School Board to press state Sen. Frank Ruff, Del. Tommy Wright and the members of the General Assembly to approve a bill similar to the one last year that gave Halifax County citizens a chance to implement a 1 percent sales tax to raise revenue for school construction projects. That referendum passed overwhelming in November with 71 percent voting in favor of a one-cent local retail sales tax, on top of the state tax of 5.3 cents.

Glanzy Spain, who serves on the Joint Education Committee with fellow supervisors Brankley and Claudia Lundy and trustee Edwards, Honeycutt and Palmer, suggested supervisors should bring in a consultant to evaluate whether $153 million was a reasonable sum for the school. He worried the public would call out board members for not being good stewards of county taxpayer dollars.

Ultimately, the committee agreed to give county administration staff sufficient time to “work up the numbers” and look into the best way to fund an additional $33 million because as Barbour pointed out, “there is no Plan B.”

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