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Millions over budget, sewer building prompts audit

by: KOIN NEWS 6 - A portion of the 'green' roof at the sewer ratepayer-funded Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant Support Facility at 5001 Columbia Blvd.Luxury carpets, a custom sink, hip furniture, lavish tiles and a million dollars in change orders are at the center of an audit into a state-of-the-art City of Portland building.

The Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant Support Facility, commissioned by the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, cost taxpayers $11.4 million according to the city – $8 million more than budgeted for in 2010.

But, a KOIN 6 investigation reveals the total, including overhead costs, to be $12,532,116. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish ordered an investigation based on related concerns about project oversight.

The state of the art, LEED Gold standard building provides a home for 38 Engineering and Construction Management support staff who handle Portland’s $12 billion sewer system. It replaces four temporary facilities.

Documents, emails and itemized invoices obtained through public records reveal expensive, perhaps unnecessary, costs associated with the project.

Seven angled rooftops designed to capture light and rainwater distinguish the building, at 5001 North Columbia Boulevard,built to one of the highest environmental standards.

By complying with the city’s LEED Gold standard, the office boasts features city officials claim will save $2.5 million over 40 years in utility costs.

But, failing infrastructure in other buildings was sacrificed for high-end spending and expensive adjustments to the building’s design, a city employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said.

Increasing costs

From an initial estimate of $3.4 million in 2010, the facility increased steadily to $5.4 million in 2012, to $6.7 million and again to $7.7 million. Later, an $11.4 million figure was released.

“It’s not lavish, it gets the job done in the most cost effective way for the ratepayers and that’s what we’re proud of,” said City of Portland Environmental Services Director Dean Marriott.

The cost, if divided by the 38 employees working at the office, would be roughly $300,000 per person.

Photos supplied by a City of Portland employee on condition of anonymity show pipes at a Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment building corroding. Plastic sheets are strung up to prevent sewage from spilling onto 13,000 volt electrical units.

Leaking pipes

Despite cost overruns, photos taken by a City of Portland employee speaking on condition of anonymity suggest needed infrastructure repairs have been left unattended.

The photos show pipes inside the adjacent sewer building corroding, with patches to contain leakage. Plastic sheets are strung up to protect sewage from leaking onto 13,000 volt electrical units, the employee said.

City officials said the pipes “pose no immediate threat to the facility or to employees and will eventually be added to our repair schedule.”

The Breakdown

The construction company in charge of the project, Skanska USA Building, worked alongside premier architecture firm Skylab, whose staff designed the ultra-green, ultra-modern headquarters.

According to a Feb. 29, 2012 ordinance signed by City of Portland auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, council determined the then-estimated $5.4 million cost of the project to be accurate. The cost would more than double by 2014.

Confidence in the estimated cost is optimal” LaVonne Griffin-Valade.

A February 2014 roundup from a BES Public Information Officer shows final construction costs to include roughly $1 million in change orders. The document shows $400,000 was spent on furniture.

The furniture

Itemized invoices to the City of Portland show the building was furnished with high-cost furniture, including a $1,481.53 coffee table and two Jehs and Laub chairs priced at $1,932.78 each.

One itemized invoice to the City of Portland from the office furniture dealer Environments shows $28,706.54 was spent on furniture for the building. Other additions to the building’s design, like carpet and a tile mosaic, tacked on tens of thousands more.

Custom tiles for a mosaic depicting an aerial view of Portland at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Support Facility cost more than $19,000.

For 215 tiles, priced at $33.72 each, taxpayers spent $7,250, according to a July 25, 2013 email from Aztech Signs Matt Rice to project managers. Another 707 tiles for $37.32 each incurred $26,385.24.

Printing of additional tiles for a mosaic depicting an aerial view of Portland ran up $19,225, Rice said in the same email.

‘Maintain building aesthetics’

One change order, valued at $15,641, called for changes to plumbing fixtures “required to maintain building aesthetics.”

The justification, according to the February 19, 2013 change order: “the intent of the design was for the fixtures to match the plumbing schedule and drawings, but it was not properly coordinated.”

Custom doors for the bathroom stalls cost $1,095. Then, a lighting upgrade for $56,252, approved in a January 20, 2014 change order.

‘City-generated’ costs

A spokeswoman for the project’s lead contractor, Skanska, said each cost increase was initiated by the city.

“Maybe there was not an awareness of the construction process necessary when you have the LEED requirements,” said Skanska spokeswoman Dianne Danowski-Smith. “All factors in cost were related in change orders that were (city) generated.”

Design

The building’s design fees ran almost one million dollars over budget – from $521,000 to $1.4 million. Furthermore, design firm Skylab Architecture’s project architect, Brent Grubb, is not a licensed architect in Oregon.

Skylab owner Jeff Kovel said Grubb is certified in California.

However, no records to prove this could be found. Kovel said Grubb’s lack of an architecture license is irrelevant because it was Kovel who signed off on the design.

City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services Construction Manager Cary Gaynor commented on Grubb’s tendency to select expensive additions in a July 11, 2013 email to Skanska’s Brian Hover.

The two were discussing an upcharge in fabric, priced at $60 per yard.

“I figured it was $70/yard, knowing Brent [Grubb],” Gaynor wrote.

“The project is a really successful project. It’s very complex. There [are] lots of layers to what happened there,” said Kovel. “It’s easy to sort of target and say this is somebody doing something wrong here, but I don’t think that’s true.”

From city to Skylab?

The “green” roof at 5001 Columbia Blvd.

James Bowen, the City of Portland’s architect on the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant Support Facility project, quit his post and went to work for Skylab in October 2013, according to his LinkedIn page.

Kovel said there was no conflict of interest. Bowen did not comment before press time

City of Portland BES spokesperson Linc Mann said in an email statement Bowen’s activities were closely monitored.

“When Skylab recruited Bowen, any contractual responsibilities with the project and Skylab were transferred to an employee supervisor,” he said.

No cellphone service

The city will need to spend between $4,000 and $40,000 to fix the issue of poor cell phone reception.

The building’s thick walls block the signal. Still, officials said the $11.4 million (their figure) spent on the project is a good investment, citing security upgrades in a plant with sensitive chemicals, and furniture – although expensive – that is built to last.

Calls for an audit

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Charlie Hales called for an audit into the BES Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant Support Facility.

In an April 25, 2014 letter to city auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish called for an investigation into the building.

“Recent information has prompted our concern about appropriate levels of oversight from project inception to the closing activities for the project,” they wrote.

“It’s important to get some lessons learned, find out if we deviated from any of our rules, and most importantly, ‘how do we do it better in the future,” said Fish.

Staff concerns

In a March 21, 2013 email to Bowen, Gaynor and senior BES engineer Blair Bean, BES Capital Improvement Program Manager Susan Aldrich expressed concern over a damaged concrete slab – the result of a delayed concrete pour by Skanska.

“It often feels like we are not holding Skanska accountable for their project,” she said.

“However, we are spending considerable money for this building. We should not make nickel and dime decisions that will affect the quality of the finished product.”

BES spokespersons refused to comment on the more recent, construction cost figure of $12,532,116.

Meanwhile, on May 20, voters will decide whether to take control of water and sewer bureaus out of the city’s hands.

For more details, visit koin.com/2014/05/06/9-million-cost-overrun-prompts-bes-audit/