County Center snafu—again

Courthouse leakage problems are all too reminiscent of the Juvenile Hall debacle

LEAKING DOLLARS<br>Butte County’s director of general services, Rich Hall, faces a section of the basement wall in the wing of the Superior Courthouse where destructive testing showed the presence of water moisture, despite the installation of an impermeable barrier. The problem has delayed construction of offices in the space by several months and will cost more than $300,000 to repair.

Butte County’s director of general services, Rich Hall, faces a section of the basement wall in the wing of the Superior Courthouse where destructive testing showed the presence of water moisture, despite the installation of an impermeable barrier. The problem has delayed construction of offices in the space by several months and will cost more than $300,000 to repair.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

The full cost:
California will probably finance the cost of a new, $72.9 million Chico-area courthouse facility slated to begin construction in 2011 rather than pay for it out of the general fund, thus raising the total cost, with interest, to $123.9 million—not including potential land expenses.

Butte County has a water problem. Or, to be more precise, a leakage problem.

For more than two years the basement in the addition to the Superior Courthouse at the County Center in Oroville has been leaking—despite the presence of a barrier meant to keep the water out. As a result, construction of new offices there, a $500,000 project, has been halted, and the state of California, which was supposed to take over management of the courthouse last summer, has been unable to do so.

By all reckonings it’s a big—and expensive—mess, and what makes matters worse is that the courthouse is the second major construction project at County Center to go sour in recent years.

In August 2003, when work was completed on the new Juvenile Hall, which cost nearly $12 million, a dispute with the contractor kept the county from moving into the facility for months—and was never adequately resolved.

In the meantime, county officials have given up waiting for the contractor to fix the courthouse leakage problem and have decided to do the work themselves, hoping they can recover the cost later.

Even so, they first need several days of good weather for the walls to dry out, and so far this winter, nature has not been cooperating. If the wet weather continues, it could be summer before the offices are built—a year late.

Much of the pressure on the county to get the offices built results from legislation passed in 2002 reassigning responsibility for the courts from the counties to the state. Under an agreement with the state Administrative Offices of the Court (AOC), Butte County was to have turned over control of the Oroville courthouse by last summer. (Two other county courthouses—in Paradise and Chico—were transferred to AOC last year.)

However, as Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Star Brown recently put it, AOC wants the courthouses it takes over to be “impeccable.”

That means no leaky basements.

The advantage of the state’s involvement is that all of the costs associated with the renovation of the courthouse, including the leakage remediation, ultimately will be reimbursed by the state.

The leakage problem was identified nearly two years ago. After a number of investigations by county staff, the Board of Supervisors hired an outside consultant, Western Construction Services of California (WCSCA), to determine the cause and extent of the problem.

WCSCA reported to the county on Sept. 10, 2007, that the contractor for the courthouse addition, Allen L. Bender of West Sacramento, had hired a subcontractor, Performance Contracting Inc. (PCI), to complete the interior walls of the basement with a moisture barrier and stucco.

Then the “water infiltration"—as it is euphemistically called—began. The barrier, according to the WCSCA report, did not hold.

At their last meeting, on Jan. 29, the supervisors finally approved a contract for the workspace construction, but that can’t start until the leaking is fixed and, according to the county’s director of general services, Rich Hall, that can happen only after the basement has dried out.

Besides, the county is still in negotiations with PCI to force the company to make the repairs on its dime or to pay up if the county has to do it.

“Negotiations” is probably the wrong word. “I’m not going to tell you what we think about [PCI],” said Supervisor Jane Dolan.

The county has set aside $356,000 for the fix.

Hall said he thought the county had been close to settling the matter with PCI. In fact, the board stopped its regular emergency declaration reports late last year because it thought a settlement was at hand. But today Hall charges that PCI’s attorney is “stalling.”

“We’ve bent over backwards,” he said. “We’re in a position now where we just need to move ahead.”

Deputy County Administrator Sang Kim said the county’s solution was to run “parallel tracks": taking care of the immediate problem with county funds and continuing to pursue negotiations—or litigation, if necessary—to recover costs from PCI, which the county says is ultimately responsible for the leakage.

On Sept. 27, 2007, the supervisors went so far as to declare an “emergency … to avoid further damage to public property.” This allowed the county to forgo California public contracts codes, expedite the repairs and resolve the reimbursement issue later.

As it turned out, Hall’s Oct. 1 anticipated start date was far too optimistic.

While the county is tight-lipped about any pending lawsuits against PCI—"We’ve actually been talking with the contractor before the lawsuit actually gets filed,” Kim said—the County Counsel’s Office characterizes contact with PCI as “settlement negotiations” that should be resolved “pretty quickly.”

Nevertheless, “everyone’s been told not to share information about it,” Dolan says.

This isn’t the first time Butte County has messed up management of a major construction project.

Back in August 2003, when construction of the new Butte County Juvenile Hall was completed, not everyone was happy with how things had been done. In fact, the move to the new facility was delayed for months while the county tried to hammer out issues with the contractor, Sacramento-based Flintco Inc., said Brian Anderson, superintendent of the hall.

Rich Hall explained that Flintco had not successfully met obligations. County reports say the contractor claimed to be owed millions of dollars.

The entire project, as Hall characterized it, was a mess.

Dolan agreed: “Messy, messy,” she said tersely.

Dolan was not pleased with how the building process went, with construction managers who were not showing up and a contractor who left the job.

After years of litigation and negotiations, “things were so contentious,” she said, that the county decided just to “cut our losses on this debacle” by taking care of ongoing problems at Juvenile Hall with county funds.

Dolan was reflective when asked whether Butte County had done a good job of managing the Juvenile Hall construction project. She said, “If Juvenile Hall were to be the standard … we’d be in trouble. There’s no question the county managed that poorly.”

She said she’d hoped the county had learned a little about the “thorough vetting process” of contractors, as she put it. The courthouse problems suggest it hasn’t.

In the meantime, as the county tries to get the courthouse ready, the state is now considering building a new $72.9 million, 60,000-square-foot, five-courtroom facility near Chico.

The AOC prepared a project-feasibility study last year in which it ranked the proposed facility as an “immediate need” and one of the highest priorities in the state.

The new facility would be a cornerstone of Butte County’s plan to create a large “northern government complex” somewhere between Chico and Paradise.

The acquisition of the four acres of property needed for the new North County facility is scheduled to begin in May of this year, according to the study, with construction starting in June 2011 and ending in January 2013. The study suggests that a “land swap” of the current courthouse site on Oleander Avenue might take place for appropriate acreage elsewhere to build the new complex.

Star Brown says the relationship between the AOC and Butte County has not deteriorated over the problems with the courthouse. She characterizes it as “very positive.”

However, the senior manager of planning for the AOC, Kelly Popejoy, was quick to point out that, while the county might be a player in building the new court facility, “they will not be our partner.” Construction, she said, will be managed by the state.

When asked whether the AOC is concerned about the troubles with the courthouse addition at County Center, she replied, “I have no comment.”