Ever wonder why public works cost taxpayers so much? Consider the case of one small project, the new Otay Valley Regional Park ranger station and restroom. Under a joint powers agreement among San Diego County, the City of Chula Vista, and the City of San Diego, local politicians have been trying to develop the park since 1990. The land dedicated to the park extends along the southern border of Chula Vista, then north to the Otay Lakes. The Otay River, which runs through the area, was the site of a great flood supposedly caused by rainmaker Charles Hatfield in 1916.
Six years ago, the park’s joint powers authority obtained a $1 million grant from the State of California to help fund the park’s growth. The money was applied to the construction of a staging area off Beyer Boulevard and new trails. The staging area, including ranger station, restroom, and parking lot, was completed in November.
Early this year, George Hanson attended the new facilities’ opening. Hanson manages the remedial writing program at UCSD and leads bird-hunting safaris to Argentina on the side. But he has worked hard to develop open-space preserves in San Diego County as well. He is currently president of the San Diego County Parks Society and is cofounder of Friends of Otay Valley Regional Park, which to date has tried to help clean up the parklands. He also serves on the Otay park’s Citizen Advisory Committee.
Hanson was disappointed in what he saw during the ranger station ribbon cutting. “It’s a dump,” he tells me. “I was walking through the ranger station, and it looked like a kid who went down to Dixieline lumber could have done a better job putting a building together. It was totally unimpressive.”
According to minutes of the February 15 Otay Valley Regional Park Citizen Advisory Committee, Hanson asked, “Would it be possible to get an accounting of the funds spent on the Beyer staging area? I attended the opening, and there was a sign that said it was a $1.7 million project, but [I] saw in the paper the next day that it was over $2 million and would like to see how these costs came to be.”
By early May, Hanson still had no answers. So on May 7, he emailed Robin Shifflet of the City of San Diego Park and Recreation Department, which was managing the project for the joint powers authority (Shifflet is a joint powers authority staff member too). Hanson asked her for the square footage of the ranger station and restroom. He then noted an apparent leap in the project’s cost. “Finally — for now — I’ve seen a document,” wrote Hanson in a May 7 email, “that lists the final cost of the ranger station [complex] as $2,543,000. Comment?”
To explain the project’s costs, Shifflet cited in her return message the next day the use of industrial-grade materials, an interior sprinkler system, air conditioning and heating, and additional lighting “on all four exterior walls to reduce vandalism.” But she pleaded ignorance of the document containing the $2,543,000 final cost. Instead, Shifflet sent along a “summary of costs” sheet. The items “I have attached,” she wrote, “are the cost from the bid we received from Heffler [Company, Inc.] to do the work.”
There were 26 items in the summary of costs from Heffler, including building and pollution permits, earthwork, archaeological monitoring program, electrical, irrigation/landscaping, light poles and fixtures, and parking lot. Of particular interest to Hanson were $210,000 for “Pre-fab Restroom/storage room with fire sprinklers” and $437,100 for “Pre-fab Ranger Station with fire sprinklers.”
The total at the bottom of the Heffler summary sheet was $2,025,308. A check of San Diego City Council meeting minutes shows that this figure was within guidelines the council set for the project on August 8, 2006. During that meeting, the council stipulated that construction costs of the Beyer Boulevard staging area were not to exceed $2,175,396.
Let’s return to the document George Hanson says he saw placing the Beyer staging area cost at $2,543,000. He identified it for Robin Shifflet in a May 9 email. It’s a request to the San Diego City Council by Stacey LoMedico, director of Park and Recreation, and signed by the City’s then–chief financial officer Jay Goldstone, to transfer excess Mission Bay lease revenues to five city park projects. In listing Otay Valley Regional Park as the recipient of $25,000, the document states: “Including this proposal, the total cost of this project is $2,543,000.” The city council approved the item on January 8.
How did the cost of the Beyer staging area get this high?
The Hanson-Shifflet email trail gives clues. In his May 9 email, Hanson also asked, “Could you kindly explain the choice of Heffler…?” Three days later, Shifflet replied that Heffler’s was “the qualifying low bid for the project.”
On May 23, after a trip to South America, Hanson brought up the square footage of the buildings at the Beyer staging area. (Two weeks earlier, Shifflet had supplied the information: a 912-square-foot ranger station and 598-square-foot restroom.) “According to my arithmetic,” wrote Hanson, “one structure (the ranger station) cost $479 per square foot, and the restroom cost $352 per square foot. I talked to a general contractor who does all sorts of custom construction. He said the square-foot cost — including his profit — would be between $85 and $100 per square foot. As the two structures we are concerned with are prefab, it’s a puzzle to me as to why the cost was so great.
“Also…I see that the cost of the ‘Wet Utilities/Sewer Connection and Pump’ is listed as $82,390. This cost estimate puzzles me because the Mitigated Negative Declaration for the project…declares that the sewer system is immediately available there on Beyer Boulevard.”
Hanson finished by asking for a copy of the request for proposals that was advertised for the project, “at least a summary of the other bids received and staff analysis of these,” and an explanation for “the subsequent cost overrun that resulted, an increase of approximately 25%.”