The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Sacramento County encounters cost overruns on big projects

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

Sacramento County probation officials hoped to save on waxing and other maintenance when they requested special floor tiles as part of a juvenile hall expansion project. The county ended up losing about $300,000 on the decision, however, as the tiles didn’t adhere to the concrete floor and quickly buckled and deteriorated.

The county completed its $39 million juvenile hall expansion in 2012, over budget by $5 million. That project and another one to widen the Hazel Avenue Bridge over the American River were the main reasons the county had a record year for construction cost overruns.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Sacramento County contracts went over budget by a total of 12 percent, the highest percentage in at least 10 years, according to a recent report by the county’s Construction Management and Inspection Division. In all, the county spent $10.3 million more on contracts than originally budgeted during the last fiscal year.

Thor Lude, the division’s chief, chalked up the cost overruns to the complexity of the county’s major projects, especially the bridge and juvenile hall projects.

According to statistics kept by Lude, about half the county’s contract changes have been due to “unforeseen site conditions,” such as utility lines or natural features not showing up on maps. About a third of the changes have been due to design oversights or disputes with contractors about a project’s costs. The rest have been due to reasons such as deciding to make design improvements after starting work.

County engineers and architects, who develop project specifications for contractors, are responsible for ensuring costs stay within a proposed budget.

“You could spend a lot of time trying to identify every (potential) issue,” Lude said. “But it becomes cost-prohibitive.”

Flatiron Construction of Benicia encountered a number of problems with the Hazel Avenue Bridge widening. The county ended up spending $24 million to finish the job, $3.7 million over budget.

While driving supports for a temporary bridge, the contractor hit large rocks below the surface, requiring additional equipment, labor and materials, county records show. The contractor again hit “unforeseen obstructions” when driving supports for the permanent bridge. The changes to the contract cost the county $314,000.

The biggest additional expense was the result of regulatory action by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, Lude said. The county budgeted $150,000 to keep debris from getting into the American River, but costs shot up to $720,000 after the state agency complained that the county’s preventive methods to handle stormwater runoff were insufficient.

The board issued a notice of violation for how the county handled soil and debris on the slopes next to the river and for creating a sediment plume in the river in August 2009, said Wendy Wyels, environmental program manager.

The county provided Flatiron an additional $600,000 for stormwater control and several other items, records show. The claims were all tied to additional work the contractor said wasn’t clearly outlined in the county’s initial specifications.

At the juvenile hall project at Kiefer Boulevard and Bradshaw Road, the county lost about $300,000 in damaged tiles and labor when the flooring buckled. The county spent $280,000 for replacements, and another $46,000 after encountering problems installing those.

Other unforeseen expenses emerged on the project.

While demolishing the existing kitchen, the county needed a way to feed juveniles in custody and determined that using a temporary kitchen would be the cheapest option. A vendor was selected at an anticipated cost of $49,000 but ended up being paid $355,500, in large part because the county did not anticipate spending $250,000 on electricity for the temporary kitchen, records show.

Likewise, the bill for an alarm system shot up by $500,000 because the hall needed twice as many sensors as the county estimated, Lude said. Otherwise, there would have been numerous “dead spots” where staff wearing personal detection devices could not be identified.

In 2007, the county did not originally include money for new security doors in sleeping areas because of “concerns of exceeding the estimated budget,” records state. Then in January 2008, a juvenile attempted suicide using a security door handle, avoiding detection because the old doors did not allow guards to see the ward. Supervisors later agreed to add $75,000 to buy new doors that provide a better view.