Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | March 10, 2009

On time, on budget needs to be SOP for public projects

Well, it’s about time: The South County Courthouse in Morgan Hill will finally open on April 6. Yes, 2009.

When I broke the story about the plans for a county courthouse in Morgan Hill in January 2001 as a reporter for the Morgan Hill Times, I would never have guessed that it would take more than eight years for the building to open for business.

When the courthouse site was revealed a few weeks later, I’m guessing that the panicked homeowners who swarmed City Council meetings to predict that “druggies and pedophiles” would be roaming their neighborhoods wouldn’t have guessed that the project would take this long either.

That’s because back in 2001, county officials were predicting a summer 2005 completion date.

I suspect that residential and business courthouse neighbors have entirely different views about the delay. After the courthouse is finally open, many workers and visitors will head to downtown Morgan Hill for meals and errands, boosting both business and foot traffic for downtown restauranteurs and retailers.

But I also wonder how many opportunities — and perhaps even businesses — were lost because this project took so long to complete.

The South County Courthouse is built on nearly eight acres on the northwest corner of Butterfield Boulevard and Diana Avenue, just across the railroad tracks from downtown. The 73,000-square foot facility has six courtrooms and replaces the mold-riddled, four-courtroom courthouse in San Martin. That facility was deemed unsafe for occupation, forcing court business to be conducted in temporary buildings for roughly a decade.

Four years past deadline is very tardy. Eight years to build a satellite courthouse is a very long time. If memory serves me correctly, the City of Morgan Hill managed to complete the following facilities in the eight-plus years since the county’s plans to build a courthouse in Morgan Hill became public:

  • Community and Cultural Center
  • Police Station
  • City Hall Expansion
  • Community Playhouse
  • Aquatics Center
  • Library
  • Centennial Recreation Center
  • Outdoor Sports Center

I understand that I’m not comparing apples to apples, but I am at least comparing fruit to fruit: one government project to another government project. And it puts into interesting perspective the more than eight-year timeline for opening the South County Courthouse.

Not only has the project taken an unreasonably long time, it has also been the source of cost overruns and contractor disputes. A story I wrote in January 2001 put the courthouse price tag at $20 million. By April 2001, I was reporting that the price tag was $25.2 million. That $5.2-million increase over three months was an omen: We now know that the South County Courthouse will cost at least $52 million, a number that could increase by another $15 million, depending on how a dispute with the contractor, several subcontractors and the county is finally settled.

I don’t know who or what’s to blame for the unreasonably long time frame or the price tag that has at least doubled since the project was announced. I’m guessing that contractors would tell a very different story than county officials.

But I know this: We can’t tolerate long-delayed, price-doubling projects any longer. This nation is embarking on a much-needed economic recovery plan that will fund lots of public works projects. They must be better managed by government officials and better implemented by the contractors they hire than the courthouse project was.

Headlines about problematic projects overshadow headlines about projects that are completed on time and on budget. Before too many government officials shout “Amen!” on that one, I’ll hasten to add that, in my opinion, that’s how it should be. It is not news, and should not be news, when government officials and contractors do their jobs by meeting deadlines and budgets.

Public works projects are funded by taxpayer dollars. They are a public trust. Government employees who manage these projects and companies that are awarded contracts ought to view the responsibility as an honor, and ought to respect the trust that taxpayers place in them to deliver quality projects in a timely, cost-effective manner.

To the degree that they do not, our communities and, by extension, our nation are harmed. And I can’t think of many more un-American things than that.

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