Higher-than-expected jail bids rejected

The justice center/jail project committee discusses options after construction bids for the jail came in much higher than anticipated.

After reviewing the construction bids for the new justice center Thursday, the Hamblen County Justice Center/Jail Project Committee bid farewell to the original plan for the new justice center due to ballooning expense.

The committee voted unanimously to reject the bids that were opened last week from four pre-qualified contractors. The lowest bid, submitted by Branch Builds, Inc., featured every design element preferred by the commission and was approximately $22 million over the $66 million available for the construction cost of the jail. Commissioner Chris Cutshaw expressed the consensus of the commission upon seeing the bids.

“We are all very disappointed,” he said, “Very disappointed. I was heartbroken.”

Building material cost was the driving factor for the higher than anticipated bids. Hamblen County Commission Chair Howard Shipley asked Bryan Payne, project manager with Moseley Architects, about the potential for material prices to decrease and lower the cost of the jail project.

“You’re in this business, and you’re quite aware of the current market,” Shipley said, “Do you think these prices might go down in the near future, or are we in it for a long run?”

Payne said the factors in making predictions about cost fluctuations are too unpredictable.

“It’s kind of like predicting the stock market,” he said, “You don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

Payne said that material costs are continuing to climb and that he does not know when they will stop.

“I think the best predictions we’ve heard and seen is that trend is going to continue,” he said.

Tony Petit, manager of Knoxville operations for BurWil Construction, said the bidding construction companies had invested tens of thousands of dollars each into developing their bids and the bids they submitted were lean. He said there was simply no way to shave significant cost without affecting the scope of the project.

“I’ve talked to each contractor trying to find ways to save money,” Petit said, “There is value engineering there, but not $20 million of value engineering. It’s just not there.”

Bill Brittain, Hamblen County mayor, said it was possible that there would be other sources of funding available to cover some of the increased costs.

He said there was almost $1 million allocated for Hamblen County in the state budget through a local government grant.

Brittain said he could not say if it would be in the budget when it passes or if it would have restrictions. He said the county would know if those funds will be available in three weeks.

Brittain said the county was receiving $12.59 million from the American Rescue Plan, but did not know what kind of requirements, if any, the federal government would impose.

“We know we’re going to get the money, we don’t know what we can spend it on,” he said.

Brittain also said there is $500,000 to $750,000 from the county’s general fund reserve that is available from prior stimulus relief as well as room in the county’s budget to handle an additional bond appropriation of $5 million.

After going over the potential sources of additional funding, Brittain made his suggestion to the committee.

“I want to go ahead and say that I recommend we reject the bids that we’ve received and we look at reducing the scope of the project,” he said.

Representatives from Moseley then proceeded to go over five options that could potentially cut the cost of the project:

• Eliminate the planned courtrooms for a savings of $10.9 million.

• Shell, or leave construction incomplete, three of the six units on the third floor for savings of $1.7 million.

• Reduce the recreation areas from each pod to a single recreation yard for the entire facility savings of $2.5 million.

• Shell the new dorm for work-release inmates for a savings of $600,000.

• Have new kitchen equipment be vendor supplied for a savings of $350,000.

The representatives from Moseley and BurWil cautioned these figures were estimates and the actual amount of money saved would not be known until new bids were submitted.

As Payne described the cost cutting options, he explained any of the measures that affected inmate movement would compromise the design intent of jail and introduce logistical challenges. Elimination of the courts and consolidation of the recreation areas would particularly cause challenges for the transport of inmates. Commissioner Tim Goins said these logistical issues were also safety issues.

“Once they start cutting those recreation yards, they’re going to have to transport people through halls and that could be an issue,” he said, “Same for the courtrooms.”

Shipley said there was concern in the community about the safety of a three story jail. He said the Tennessee Correction Institute had endorsed the design of the jail.

“I find it very difficult they would put their stamp of approval on the jail if there were safety concerns,” he said, “Also, the fire marshal has put his stamp of approval on it.”

Petit said that the jail, without cuts, would be one of the safest facilities ever built in the state because of reduced movement required to move inmates around the building.

After discussing the costs to renovate the current work-release dormitory, which is in disrepair and not certified, the committee determined the fourth option to shell the new dormitory would not result in enough savings to justify its consideration. Shipley made the motion and the committee voted to eliminate that option.

Brittain said it was disheartening to go through this process because the plan had met all of the county’s needs for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve got an excellent plan,” he said, “We’ve got a great team of designers and our project manager. I would prefer to build the building as designed, but it’s an awful lot of money. So we’re trying to prioritize what our needs are and look at the future of the county to see what the best plan is for the next five to ten years. We want to build as much as we can now and I think the commissioners’ priority is jail beds.”

Brittain said the process planning the new cuts, deciding on additional funding and the bidding process could take months.

“We’re hoping August is when we could bid it again,” he said.