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Mecklenburg supervisors air complaints on school project cost

SoVaNow.com / October 16, 2019
The Mecklenburg Count Board of Supervisors, led by Jim Jennings, shared their frustration over the cost projections for building Mecklenburg County’s consolidated school campus during Tuesday’s meeting of the board.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Abe Jeffers shared steps that the Mecklenburg County School Board is taking to reduce construction costs after opening bids from general contractors came in well above the $120 million budget that supervisors have allocated for the project.

The first round of bids featured a low bid of slightly less than $130 million, by Cleveland Construction, Inc. of Charlotte, N.C. If accepted, the bid will drive up the full cost of the Baskerville school project to nearly $155 million, $35 million over budget.

The additional $25 million above Cleveland Construction’s bid price is to cover costs associated with permits, wetland mitigation, moving power lines, cemeteries and cable and improvements to roads demanded by VDOT for safety reasons.

Jeffers told supervisors on Tuesday that school board trustees voted on Oct. 2 to rebid the project. This was done as of Monday, Oct. 14, after modifications were made to the project that architects and engineers believe should reduce overall costs, Jeffers said. The tweaks include changes to the type of flooring and HVAC controls that do not affect the overall school design.

These changes, combined with “a better bidding environment” with more general contractors likely to bid the project, should help bring the project back within budget, according to Jeffers.

In response, Jennings asked how the “numbers have gotten so out of hand.

“Back in spring the architect [Billy Upton of Ballou Justice Upton] did a presentation here, put the numbers up on the wall and said it would cost $270 per square foot [to build the school],” Jennings recounted. Noting that the bids came back at $370 per square foot, Kennings asked, “How do you pay someone that kind of money [approximately $10 million for architects] and they miss that far? It should raise some red flags and it does not pass the smell test. This is not working,” Jennings said.

Jeffers said the numbers used by the three general contractors that submitted bids on the project last month — Cleveland Construction, Branch Builds of Roanoke and Charles Perry Partners, also of Roanoke — were in line with figures reported by other school divisions that are tackling new school construction projects.

“Right now, it is an exceedingly competitive environment for construction, and this is a problem that is occurring across the state,” said Jeffers.

Jennings was unmoved, telling fellow supervisors that while he fully supports the new school project, “we’ve got to put the brakes on this somewhere and you need to look at this under a microscope.”

After the second bid opening, Jeffers said school trustees will review the proposals for the best bid and then decide how to proceed. He said he anticipated there would be a meeting of the joint education committee around that time and following that, sometime in December, the construction contract would be awarded.

In response to a question from Dan Tanner, Jeffers said that the permitting process is not yet complete, therefore construction work cannot begin.

During board member comments, vice chairman Gregg Gordon attempted to deflect some of the frustration Jennings laid at the feet of the architects. Gordon said, “I think we are going to get a great school that will be a great benefit. While we need to be good stewards, we can’t shed all the blame because when we initiated this project, we made some costly choices.

“Right or wrong they were made. So now we need to get the most bang for the buck, but we certainly don’t want to see our programs short changed.”

Several board members, among them Glanzy Spain, expressed concern that add-ons such as an auxiliary gym and barn and greenhouse were removed from the project in effort to reduce costs. His fear was that these projects will never get built, thus diminishing the quality of education offered to the students.

David Brankley wondered if the architects would lower their fee from the current amount of $10,858,420.00 since the project came in at 30 percent over budget. He also asked to meet with the architects and school trustees before a general contractor is chosen.

Sterling Wilkinson agreed and added that perhaps the architects should be replaced.

In other business, School Director of Operations Brian Dalton told supervisors the division was using its $50,000 contingency fund to fix the heating system at Park View Middle School. The lone working boiler at the school gave out and must be replaced or the school will be without heat during the winter.

It will take two weeks for the new propane condensable boiler to be built and another week to install the system. The cost, $47,078.85 include installation, hook up charges and the cost of shifting fuel oil from the existing boiler to another site. Dalton said the new system will be more efficient and reliable.

General Registrar Jason Corwin reminded supervisors of several key dates for the upcoming General Election. They include Election Day, Nov. 5, the last day to request an absentee ballot by mail, Oct. 29, and the two Saturdays during which early in person voting can be done at the Registrar’s office in Boydton, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2.

In other business, VDOT Residency Administrator Tommy Johnson introduced the new assistant administrator for the area, Kevin Smith, telling the board that Smith has over 20 years of experience with VDOT. He also said all of the current road construction projects have been completed for this year. They will begin paving additional roads in the spring.

In response to a question from Gordon, Johnson said the current plans to install a temporary roundabout in Clarksville at the intersection of Highways 58, 58 Business and US 15 is on hold. The temporary project was suspended after concerns were raised by county and town officials who worried that the elevation change from the east to the west side of Highway 58 would pose a problem for drivers entering the roundabout and not alleviate collisions.

Brankley wondered what steps if any could be taken to eliminate trash littering the roadways. Johnson said his department has limited resources available to pick up trash and until they can identify who is creating the problem it is tough to eliminate. He also noted, with irony, some of the worst locations are near anti-littering signs erected by VDOT.

Supervisors approved a resolution to support repairs and upgrades to the Civil Rights Education Heritage Trail and authorized county employees to open bank accounts and sign all appropriate documents for a housing rehab project in the Quail Hollow area. The money for the project comes from a community block grant awarded by the Virginia Department of Housing.

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