Desperately Seeking Quality Control
On Feb. 6 a federal jury ruled in favor of California-based project manager Fluor Daniel in its court battle against Travis County over delays and cost overruns in the construction of the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center Complex. The jury ordered Travis County to pay the company $2.8 million for work completed on the project. The county had countersued Fluor Daniel for $11 million, claiming the company failed to complete the project by the August 1999 deadline, and was not entitled to any compensation for work done after the deadline. The county received nothing in the countersuit.
Predictably, county officials were not happy with the outcome, but County Judge Sam Biscoe said he is not in favor of appealing the jury's decision. "I don't agree with [the verdict], but at the same time I have respect for their decision," he said. "We have to wait and see what the lawyers say, but we are about 60-40 in deciding to try and get this behind us as opposed to trying to appeal it."
The ill-fated project began with the 1993 county bond election, in which officials asked voters to approve $67.7 million for the CJC project as well as improvements to the Del Valle jail. The project -- originally designed as two five-story structures -- was scheduled for completion in May 1997, and budgeted to cost $22 million. Three years and an additional $23 million later, the complex finally opened in December 2000 as one 10-story building.
County officials lay the blame for the overruns, design changes, and delays firmly in the lap of Fluor Daniel, which was hired as the project manager. The main problem, Biscoe said, was the "multi-prime" contract the county signed with Fluor Daniel. Instead of hiring one general contractor to then subcontract the specific work -- like plumbing, roofing, etc. -- the multi-prime contract allowed the county to contract out individual pieces of the project to local smaller and minority-owned companies, which otherwise couldn't afford to bid on such a large project. Those subcontractors in turn were to be overseen by project manager Fluor Daniel.
"This was a new and different [kind of contract] for us," Biscoe said, "but Fluor Daniel said they had used it in different places," and that it had worked successfully. Unfortunately, Biscoe said, it did not work in Travis County. Instead of managing the project, Biscoe said, Fluor Daniel failed to address problems as they arose and then also failed to bring those problems to the county's attention. "After about five or six months [into the project], when we realized the project was in trouble, we put a standing item on our [Commissioners Court] agenda every week," he said, to give Fluor Daniel a specific time and place to address problems as they appeared. But, Biscoe said, Fluor Daniel failed to take advantage of the arrangement. "Clearly they got before the court when they wanted to," he said, but they never acted on the growing list of problems.
Fluor Daniel's Austin lawyer Shannon Ratliff said Biscoe's account of what happened includes more than a little "revisionist history." "I think the evidence at trial showed that when we brought issues to the commissioners court they were postponed; now they're saying they would've made the decisions," Ratliff said. "They set up a standing agenda item late in the process -- but they didn't even testify to that in court. I think the principal problem was that we couldn't get any decisions in a timely fashion." In all, the county failed to provide any coherent leadership for the project, Ratliff said, and the jurors realized the county didn't hold up its end of the deal. "Obviously I think the jury got it right," he said.
Just one year after the complex opened, the building is plagued with ongoing problems. Four lumbering elevators make getting in and out of the building a daily chore -- a problem exacerbated by the fact that the stairways are blocked off from public access due to security concerns. Sewage leaks in the district clerk's office have caused more than one patch of carpet to be stripped from the floor, and a major roof leak discovered last year allowed rainwater to seep as far down as the seventh floor. Adding insult to injury, after the roof began to leak, mold was found in the jury rooms of three courts, possibly causing at least one Judge -- Jon Wisser -- to contract a bout of pneumonia.
But Ratliff insists Fluor Daniel is not responsible for any of the continuing problems at the complex. In fact, he said, the responsibility can be placed directly on the county's shoulders. "One of the things the county negotiated out of the contract was a full-time quality control inspector," Ratliff said. "They just took that out."