Bernstein Park Questions

top-secret-1076813_960_720There’s a letter on KeysNews.com about Bernstein Park.  It was written by Diane Beruldsen.  Beruldsen is wondering how the cost of Bernstein Park sky-rocketed from $3 million to $8 million.  So am I!

Beruldsen has lots of very good questions.  Here’s one.

So now my question to the public is: Why on Earth spend $5 million for one building?

I have no earthly idea.  The official justification seems to be that “the people wanted it”.  Hmmm…did they?

The first public discussion I can find is in the January 2014 minutes of the Parks and Recreation Committee.  The idea of a community center was raised and there was considerable debate as to whether Bernstein Park was the appropriate place for such a facility.  

The point was made several times that the park isn’t that large and that a community center would take up much of the green space.  The Hickory House was proposed as an alternative site for the community center.

In August of 2014, the Hickory House was sold to developer Pritam Singh for $2 million.  The taxpayers took a loss of $1.1 million on the deal.  Somewhere between January 2014 and August 2014, somebody decided that it was better to take a $1.1 million loss on the Hickory House and spend $5 million on a new community center at Bernstein Park.  The taxpayers get stuck with the tab for all this.

Beruldsen followed up with a few more questions.

Is there a commission someone receives or a percentage of the project? Who benefits from these huge buildings going up in the Keys?

Who benefits?  It’s always the right question to ask.

We’ll start with the official party line.  Theoretically, the community center will benefit Stock Island and neighboring areas.  One of the big supporters of a community center was Daniel Dombrowski who runs the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Florida Keys.  Providing quality child care for people who work in the tourism industry was a primary concern.  As you can imagine, many of them don’t work normal business hours.  The Boys & Girls Club was running out of space at their existing locations.

All of that sounds reasonable enough.  But is it necessary for the county to spend $5 million to meet that need?

Steve Miller, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB) chairman, suggested converting the Hickory House into a community center.  Several speakers expressed the need for athletic fields to play soccer, rugby, etc.

Bottom line: the desire for a community center was not unanimous.  Even if it were, several people expressed concern over Bernstein Park being the appropriate location for it.  As far as I can tell, those who supported the idea of a community center weren’t hung up on Bernstein Park as the only possible location.

Let’s return to the question on the table:  who benefits?  Obviously, the contractors and subcontractors receive an immediate benefit.  Instead of a $3 million project they get an $8 million project – $5 million just like that.

The county sent me the agenda back-up for the project award in response to a public records request.  The project was awarded to Burke Construction Group, Inc.  Let’s assume that Burke Construction will make about 20%.  A $3 million project would have netted them $600,000.  An $8 million project would net them $1.6 million.  That’s a big difference.

The documents called for a list of subcontractors, and Burke provided that.  It can be found by scrolling down to page 49 of the agenda back-up.  I recreated the list below and provided links to Sunbiz.org if available.

There’s nothing about the contractors or subcontractors that raises a red flag for me.  This does not appear to be a Toppino-style situation.  There is a familiar name associated with Certified Lower Keys Plumbing – Barroso.  As you might recall, Brian Barroso chose not to reapply for appointment to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) board after becoming the subject of a nepotism probe.  Barry Barroso is listed as the president of Certified Lower Keys Plumbing.  I don’t know if he’s any relation to Brian Barroso.

Comm. Danny Kolhage (or some relative) dabbles in construction here and there, but there’s nothing to indicate that he benefits at all from this project.  It is worth noting, however, that Kolhage is a huge supporter of irresponsible spending on capital projects.  Spending on Cudjoe Regional and other projects sky-rocketed on his watch.

It’s the BOCC’s handling of the project itself that raises the red flag.  The usual bait-and-switch, over-spending and lack of transparency is reason enough for taxpayers to be concerned.  The BOCC has a tendency to take a needed and/or desired project and then drive up the cost up dramatically.  Whether this happens due to simple incompetence or whether there are hands in the cookie jar is an open question.  Either way, the public is often told that a project will initially cost a certain amount, only to see costs sky-rocket way beyond the initial price.  It happens repeatedly.

I haven’t found exactly where the BOCC made the official decision to actually build the community center.  It looks as though the decision was made for them at the April 20, 2016 meeting when staff asked them to award the project to Burke Construction Group, Inc.  The BOCC, of course, could have declined to go forward.  The county could have rejected all bids and they could have scaled back the project so that it would come in under budget.  They didn’t do that.  Instead, they made a big show of being “surprised” and “angry” at the cost.  I’m surprised by their “surprise“.

Here is link to the April 16, 2014 minutes where the community center was discussed.  See item J1.  By the way, if you watch the recording of that meeting, the architect was very clear about the cost of the community center.  A year later $3 million was allocated for the project when the cost was known to be much higher.  I do not know why.  I would like to though.

Here’s a brief presentation staff gave to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) on April 20, 2016, and a report that went with it.  These documents place the cost of the new community center at around $5 million, which is consistent with what the architect told them two years earlier.

To be clear, I have no objection to the community center or to the park improvements.  My concern is more about poor cost control and the murky way in which these spending decisions are made.

Why spend $5 million on a new building when the BOCC just sold a building for a loss?  Why is there no control over capital project spending?  Why do project costs constantly escalate far beyond the budgeted amounts?  What guides the BOCC’s decision-making?

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