October 09, 2013 - The County Council recently got its first look at plans proposed by the winning bidder for the county's $129 million Family Justice Center.
County voters approved Proposition S, a $100 million bond issue, in April 2012 to fund the project. Prop S will fund the construction of a new Family Justice Center and safety improvements to the county's current court building without a tax-rate increase.
County officials acknowledged they underestimated the cost of the new Family Justice Center this summer, when it returned to the council to ask for $30 million more in bonds to fund the project and told council members the World Trade Center would be demolished as a staging site for the new construction.
The council voted 6-0 to approve the issuance of the additional $30 million in general-obligation bonds, with 6th District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, abstaining.
The council reviewed the plans for the building during a Committee of the Whole meeting Sept. 24. The county's selected bidder, KCI Construction, will have to be approved by the County Council before the county can begin construction this fall.
As part of the county's bidding process, a five-member team examined the proposals and selected KCI, which will work with Fentress Architects on the project. Clayco/Alberici Joint Venture and McCarthy Courts Collaborative also bid on the project. All three bidders submitted bids of $129 million for the project.
The county may ask KCI to incorporate some aspects of the two competing plans into the building, said Sheryl Hodges, director of the county Department of Highways and Traffic and Public Works.
"It's not going to change the basic footprint," she said. "Right now, we're still looking at things like the circuit clerk is here, so should this group sit next to this group?"
The building will be LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — certified and will have 43 courtrooms, including special courtrooms to handle juvenile and domestic violence cases, Hodges noted. The entrance opens into a three-story atrium and an expanded security area, with the most-used courtrooms up an escalator to the second floor. Skylights, or "sky domes," will bring more light inside the court building.
The plans presented to the council include $4 million in "owner-controlled contingency," which the Department of Public Works could spend without approval from the council. That fund will cover any additions to KCI's plans that the county requests, as well as any unforeseen conditions uncovered during construction, Hodges noted. Multiple employees would have to sign off on any expenses, she added.
Third District Councilwman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and 7th District Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, questioned Hodges about the potential expenditure of millions of dollars without oversight from the council.
"They're fully public change orders, signed off, documented, available," Hodges said. "We typically will send you, you know, a monthly report — we can include it in that."
"That makes me a little nervous," Wasinger said. "This project in general is very complicated, and there's been some unusual circumstances with getting it all together, so … that concerns me a little bit."
Stenger, Wasinger, Fifth District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, and Quinn agreed they are concerned with any potential lack of transparency of change orders that are approved by county workers rather than the council.
"Four million dollars will probably exceed all of the contracts that we're asked to approve per week, by millions of dollars," Quinn said. "That's a pretty big amount, and there's going to be no transparency until after the fact."
Dolan wondered if the $4 million could be separated into smaller pieces and approved by the council in stages rather than pre-approving the entire amount before construction.
"It's a $130 million project," Hodges said.
"I understand — but we didn't think it was going to be that, either," Dolan replied.
Change orders and contingency funds are a regular part of county projects and actually save taxpayers money since they prevent any delays in construction, said David Wrone, public information manager for the Department of Highways and Traffic and the Department of Public Works. The $4 million in contingency is included in the $129 million projected cost of the project, and the council will get a monthly report on any expenditures, he noted.
The county and construction company plan to begin work on the design almost immediately, in anticipation of final construction plans being drawn up and construction beginning soon, to be completed by July 2016.
The county has assigned a construction resident engineer to work as a communications engineer during the construction, working on temporary signs that direct people to the correct courtroom despite the signage.