PBA gets fee cut

County takes over Townsend renovations and CMS fields

By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

The Blount County Public Building Authority got its pay rate reduced and lost two projects to county government during a Blount County School Board meeting on Thursday, April 12.

Following a vote with only one dissenter, the board chose to reduce the PBA’s 2 percent project management fee and use savings to pay for the Townsend Elementary School renovations and the Carpenter’s Middle School athletic fields. The projects were turned over to the county to manage.

School board members made the move after discussing cost overruns with PBA officials and director Ron Ogle. The question was why, after the PBA was given $40 million to build two schools on the west side, there is a $200,000 to $300,000 overrun before construction of the buildings have begun.

Troy Logan with the Blount County Schools said the new west side middle school was $196,000 over budget, and the new west side elementary was $123,000 over budget.

This is the second time since January cuts have been proposed in the building plans for the two schools. In January, the board cut eight classrooms from the new middle school design.

"We’re $200,000 over budget, and we don’t want to be over budget," said school board chairman Mike Treadway. "That’s not acceptable. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get this project back on budget."

Ron Ogle, who is director of the PBA, said, "I think we’re all looking to do a better job with estimating costs so there are no overruns.

"We’re just trying to manage those projects to make sure we get them under budget and on schedule," Ogle said. "I don’t really think (the PBA authority) has changed. The projects that we’re managing, we’re still in that mode until something changes. The school board has voted previously to have the PBA continue those projects and based on the meeting the other night, I think that’s still the intention."

Board member Robb Webb said he was concerned about the PBA’s management because it spent more than the county had allotted. "I don’t understand how we beat our budget without giving our approval."

Board member John Davis, Jr., said he often is confused by the PBA’s figures. "This is like shooting a fast dove. Every time I think I’ve got it zeroed in, he’s on a different field," Davis said. "These budgets continue to evolve. I understand estimates have room in them. It seems we’re consistently over."

Webb said he was frustrated. "The scary thing is, we’re moving dirt, and we’re $300,000 over. What happens when we get into the building?" he said. "Sometime, someplace someone has to realize this is how much we have to spend and not a penny more."

Blount County Finance Director Dave Bennett was asked to the podium to offer recommendations on what could be done. Bennett’s first recommendation was getting rid of the PBA’s 2 percent project management fee.

"That’s $700,000 right now. You could pay the $196,000 that is over budget and replace those classrooms," Bennett said.
Howard Kerr, a member of the PBA, spoke about why the group has been strapped financially. While the county has paid other contractors at the two schools on time, they haven’t paid the PBA since January, he said.

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said the reason the PBA hadn’t been paid was because their contract hadn’t been approved by the Financial Management committee. "We requested a contract, and we still have not received one," Cunningham said.

John Davis made a motion that the PBA’s fee be reduced to just their overhead operating costs and that any savings be put toward building two rooms needed at Townsend Elementary School and the Carpenters Middle School athletic grounds.
While it failed initially, it was passed on a second reading when Davis added a stipulation that the maximum the PBA receive would be a fee of $275,000.

Bennett said that during his time-off from work during January to recover from heart surgery, the PBA used funds they were supposed to have returned to the county to pay for bills incurred at the Carpenters Middle School construction phase. Bennett had refused to pay those bills because the project was over budget.

Earlier this year, the PBA returned $300,000 of about $450,000 they owed the county government, after a request from Cunningham. Cunningham contacted District Attorney Mike Flynn about the situation, and he sent the case file on to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to check into the situation, Cunningham said.

Concerned over what he called "questionable practices," Cunningham talked more about the PBA the day following the April 12 meeting. He said that what has upset him most about work done by the PBA has been for mold remediation at area schools. The PBA has been paid $300,000 in the past 18 months for mold remediation, he said.

Cunningham said that in many cases, the county could use its own employees instead of contracting out with PBA. He said recently there were about 100 cans of paint marked for disposal.

The PBA contractor came back with an estimate of $150,000 to get rid of the paint cans, Cunningham said. Justin Teague, storm water department head, and Don Stallions, of Risk Management, got rid of everything, including paying small fines, for less than $10,000, the mayor said.

"By doing it in house, we saved over $150,000," Cunningham said.

The mayor said the county later saved $200,000 by using county employees to deal with a mold problem in the courthouse basement rather than a PBA contractor.

"I’m beyond being frustrated," Cunningham said. "I’m angry at this point. These are my tax dollars, too. In essence, we have literally expended tens of thousands of dollars of school building money when we could have done it all in house," he said.

Cunningham said he didn’t feel superintendent Alvin Hord or the school board was to blame.

"Like everyone else, they trusted the project manager, and the project manager trusted the PBA and relied on PBA assertions of expertise in these areas," he said.

"Had we handled it in-house, wouldn’t those tens of thousands of dollars been a giant step toward textbook fundraising or
returning of the (new west middle school) classrooms cut off from the project?"

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