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Changes turn courthouse renovation into 'bottomless pit'

April 06, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- It was supposed to take about 15 months to renovate Washington County Courthouse. But four years after the project began, work continues -- extended by change orders and a host of problems encountered along the way.

When the work started in 2004, the plan was to add space for holding cells and a fifth Circuit Court judge. The cost was estimated at $4.19 million.

Since then, the county has approved 71 construction change orders to deal with several issues, from asbestos in the building's upper floors to repairs in the alley outside to security enhancements triggered by a courthouse shooting more than 600 miles away.

"This thing has become a bottomless pit," said Gary W. Rohrer, the county's director of special projects who has been in charge of the renovation project since its inception.

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The change orders have added more than $650,000 to the construction contract, which has gone from $4.19 million to $4.84 million. Parallel contracts with the project's architect and inspector have also risen because of the delays, and a separate contract to install cameras and build a sally port for prisoner drop-off has been added.

In total, just more than $7 million has been budgeted in the capital projects budget for courthouse renovations, according to county budget documents.

Many of the problems associated with the project have been out of the county's control, yet they have created a string of changes that the county commissioners say they have little choice but to approve.

"It's been a lesson learned. It's part of the difficulty of renovating a building of significant age," Commissioner James F. Kercheval said.

The project began in September 2004 to add courtroom facilities and office space for a fifth Circuit Court judge.

In addition, the courthouse basement was to be renovated to allow for more prisoner holding cells and storage space for the clerk of the court.

For that work, the county set an expected completion date of Dec. 2, 2005.

But the buildings -- both the 19th-century courthouse and the annex built in 1962 -- presented a series of challenges that made that date hard to meet.

"I've yet to see a renovation and demolition project in an old structure that finishes on time and within budget," Rohrer said.

'Latent' conditions

By December 2005, the county had approved 31 change orders on the project.

Many of those were to pay for what Rohrer calls "latent" conditions, or things that were found during construction that weren't labeled on the buildings' original plans.

For example, Callas Contractors, which has the construction contract for the project, found a well in the cistern near the west entrance in November 2004. The well wasn't on the building plans.

The county approved a $1,827 change order to abandon the well, remove the well pump and cap all the pipes.

Similarly, in March 2005 the county approved a $5,503 change order to fill a 3-foot-wide concrete pipe trench and install a new, 5-inch concrete floor slab.

"The concrete chase was not shown on the 1962 construction plans," the change order reads.

More than a dozen similar change orders exist, each requiring hundreds or thousands of dollars to adapt the project to unknown conditions.

Atlanta shooting

Rohrer said delays from existing latent problems put the project six months behind schedule by March 2005, when a shooting in an Atlanta courthouse occured that would put the project even farther behind.

The man accused of the fatal shooting was a defendant on trial for rape. Prosecutors alleged the defendant overpowered a deputy and stole her

gun while she was taking him from a detention area to a courtroom.

The shooting, which left three people dead, sparked a national discussion on courthouse safety and resulted in several security upgrades to the Washington County Courthouse, some of which were tacked on to the renovation project.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department and Washington County Circuit Court judges asked that a dedicated prisoner elevator and ramp in the alley be added to the project to keep prisoners isolated.

In addition, a separate contract was signed with Callas to build a prisoner drop-off sally port and to install security cameras throughout the courthouse.

That contract is expected to cost between $900,000 and $1 million, and has seen roughly $124,000 in change orders, Washington County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III wrote Thursday in an e-mail.

"That just turned everything up on its ear," Rohrer said, referring to the Atlanta courthouse shooting. "There was a sense of urgency, and plans that had been agreed to in concept were no longer acceptable in terms of how prisoners would be moved. It became crisis management," Rohrer said.

Asbestos again

About one year later the project hit another bump when asbestos was jarred loose on the second floor during demolition.

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