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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Washington County's $20 million dollar Public Works North Shop


The controversial Washington County Public Works North Shop renovation project is in the spot light. The initial budget was $17.5 million, approved in December 2014. Costs rose to over $20.5 million in February and came down the next month to what is a price tag of $19.7 million as of the Spring of 2015. This article is a running update on the project with posts on our Facebook page to notify you of updates in this article that was first posted in March (also posted below updates here).


April 20th update: Finally received response to request to view the plans with an offer to pay $1,313 dollars for copies to review. 






April 24th update: We opted to go in under for a supervised visit with the plans. 








May 26th: The County board voted 5-0 to approve the first mid project upgrade that is all too common in Washington County. This one is a 29% cost over run for a concrete apron on the Warm Storage building
to "reduce debris coming into the building"... a cool $15,444. 










June 23rd: (passed 5-0)
They forgot to include "general conditions" in the planning contract for the Public Works North Shop Construction Management services contract with Kraus-Anderson Construction. The oversight collectively nearly doubling the contract cost eats another $595,050 from the contingency fund.  











On July 14th
It wasn't in the approved budget or plans... Hold on to your wallets tax payers the County is discussing putting in a Solar Garden at the Public Works North Shop... Judging by the lack of solar gardens (locally) outside Government, rest assured these are a bad idea wrapped with good intentions and big price tags. No cost estimates yet. Stay tuned.






On July 21st
For some reason we got a massive $22,000,000 dollars from the State to take over just 8.3 miles of road from MNDOT. Instead of putting the money into road projects the public works department recommends spending most the funds on the Public Works North Shop. 



Not sure why we're getting that much money when the State is increasing County State Aid for the added mileage too.









Putting all this money into the North Shop instead of directly into roads may not make sense when our County Pavement Condition Index is an all time low as of the most recent rating:










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There is no doubt the aging facility that houses public works vehicles and a small office needs to be replaced. What is of concern to tax payers is: why does it need to cost nearly $20 million dollars? Almost the same price as the newly constructed $22 million dollar Bielenberg sports Center in Woodbury that is by far larger in size and complexity with 320 acres, 36 ball fields, a splash pad, an outdoor refrigerated rink, two indoor ice rinks; 90,000 sq/ft  indoor field, plus 20,000 sq/ft two story lobby with future restaurant and lounge, plus 7,000 sq/ft training facility, plus 15,000 sq/ft playground; solar panels and geothermal heating etc... all designed to please the eye and safety needs of the general public (ie: landscaping, automatic doors, flat panel TVs everywhere, locker rooms, etc) Compare pictures and specs side by side from Pope Architecture and you can instantly understand why one would be confused with why these two projects are so similar in cost. (Granted many of the outdoor fields already existed)


I questioned the North Shop spending in 2013 when it was introduced in the now approved Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). I wrote about the shop as one of the contributors to the County debt (that has tripled in just those seven years): 

County Debt Tripled in the Last Seven Years, the Board Undeterred: Budget Passes


At that time, in 2013, the Public Works Northshop had a price tag of $17.5 million. The price was still $17.5 million when the County Board approved the 2015-2019 CIP in Mid December (p. 60 county source). Again at the January 20th County Board meeting when the final design was presented the cost was still $17.5 million (p. 291 county source) Yet in February we find out from the Star Tribune the cost peaked at $20.5 million. After the budget was reviewed and passed and after the Final design was approved. 

I emailed the Public Works Director Don Theisen inquiring why the costs for the project were so high in July of 2014 and he responded that the details of the design hadn't been made. I emailed the County Deputy Director of Engineering Wayne Sandberg how his department came up with the estimate... however, he refereed me to Theisen. We were stuck in the dark. Tax payers had nothing to gauge the North Shop Project budget on even if we wanted to voice concern at the December 2014 "Truth and Taxation budget hearing." The massive mysterious project passed in the budget unanimously the same month. 

One of two things happened: either tax payers were subjected to bate and switch by the Public Works department when they waited to include the known increased cost until after the project and bonds were approved.  Or the County Board was also willing to overlook the facts so it would pass the public in December when we could have spoke up. Whether this was a convenient oversight or intentional is unknown at this time.












To add insult to injury, when "the details of the design" were made and presented in the January 20th County board meeting I asked Theisen for the plans again. This was after the February Star Tribune article explained the cost was now up to $20+million. On March 4rth he kindly responded: 
"Project bids were opened yesterday.  When they are presented to the Board for consideration this will provide detailed, current, and accurate figures."

How comforting for us to finally be able to see the details of what we're paying for... AFTER the budget passes; AFTER the final design is voted on and approved; and now AFTER the bid to construct the project is accepted and locked in. 

We have a department of local government buying themselves a nice fancy building with (for all we can tell) a blank check signed and delivered by the rubber stamp of the County Board; we were not allowed to view the January 20th approved design under the excuse it is not current or accurate; and we'll only be able to see what we're paying for now that the contractor is locked in for the job to build the thing. 

We're beyond the point of no return on the North Shop Project with any hopes of scaling it back. Even if the building is scaled back in any way the contractor could sue for breach of contract... as they rightly could, for the interest of not wanting to have less income on a smaller project. There would have to be a completely new design that would cost literally hundreds of thousands in planning and new bids etc. 

Perhaps what's most frustrating for tax payers is the seemingly out of touch County Board:


“I have no concept at this point what the final cost of this build out is going to be,” said Commissioner Gary Kriesel in a Star Tribune Article









Again, the building does need to be replaced; however, that doesn't give you free license to build yourselves God knows what, refuse to show us the details, and get away with simply ignoring our honest concern.

It costs zero dollars to copy and paste the itemized costs etc into a pdf or power point... Just ask Cory Slagle the Washington County Roads Engineer. He does an amazing job of putting every road project detail online from bids to final payment online. He also arranges many open houses and public forums for the road projects he plans along the way. We've posted about this common sense service with thanks.

Please contact the County Commissioners to increase transparency and fiscal responsibility on this project.

fran.miron@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6211 
ted.bearth@co.washington.mn.us 651-738-2425 
gary.kriesel@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6213 
lisa.weik@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6215 
karla.bigham@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6214


-Matt Behning
Washington County Watchdog


Sewer for the North Shop, from February 2015: