A string of additional costs in the first stages of the Walworth County Courthouse construction in Elkhorn is concerning county officials, who have vowed to closely monitor the controversial project.
Walworth County’s Public Property Committee approved five of 16 change orders in August that will add about $76,000 to the $12 million project, which started in June after 12 years of controversy over where it should be located. It is scheduled to be substantially completed in September 2004.
Walworth County Administrator David Bretl said county officials had set up a $378,000 contingency fund for the project. The fund will pay for the cost increases.
He said one item, $31,423 to add fiber mesh reinforcing in the concrete between the first and second floors, was the fault of the project’s architect, which did not include it in the original bid package.
“I was surprised by the number of change orders this early in the project,” Bretl said. “I might feel differently if we were at the tail end of the project. We’re going to watch this very closely to make sure we stay within the budget. There are a lot of critics out there on this project who are also watching it very closely.”
Bretl said he was most concerned about the omission by the project’s architect, Ayres Associates Inc., Eau Claire, of the concrete reinforcing. He said the firm has offered to pay between 5 and 10 percent of the cost of the item, but he said county officials were still negotiating with Ayres over how to split the cost.
“Unfortunately, mistakes sometimes happen,” he said. “We just have to try and work through it to determine what we can do to minimize our costs.”
Brian Larson, vice president of architecture for Ayres, said the omission “was just an oversight.”
“We’re responsible to see that the county is not damaged by our omission,” he said. “We are taking full responsibility.”
Larson was quick to point out that one of the 16 change orders suggested would save the project about $132,000 by having the county purchase materials for the project, using the county’s tax-exempt status to avoid a sales tax.
He also said the changing soil conditions were a big issue on the project, despite several soil borings that were done before construction started.
“We did our homework, but the problem with soil borings is that you can do them in one area and 10 feet away, there can be much different conditions,” he said. “We now believe that most of that is behind us and we are not expecting any more soil surprises.”
Other approved change orders include $12,257 for elevator shaft drillings and castings; $30,432 to stabilize soft soil in the facility’s parking lot; $1,532 for breaker rock and $351 for stabilization fabric to stabilize the soil at the front entrance.
Bretl said the county recently overhauled its public works department, including hiring a new director. He said even if there were lots of future change orders, county officials were committed to not exceeding the budget.
“There is no desire to add money to this budget,” he said. “If something happens, there are some amenities and extras in the budget that we will have to do without. We will also have to look at some value engineering to try and reduce some costs. I will not recommend going back to the County Board to increase the budget.”
Bretl said the recent dry weather has helped construction crews, who are ahead of schedule in building the facility’s exterior shell.
“Luckily, we have caught some breaks with the good weather,” he said.
The early cost issues have been more frustrating to county officials because of the long-running controversy over where to build the project. Bretl said there was more than a decade of debate as county officials originally proposed building the facility in the town of Geneva on Highway NN.
Elkhorn city officials wanted to keep the building in the city and fought hard. In the end, the land was annexed to the city.
“This thing has been extremely political right from the beginning,” Bretl said. “We need to concentrate on moving this project ahead and getting it completed on time and within budget.”