WSP city hall plans flatline, tensions rise

Start with a 180-degree turn on city-hall building plans, add a cost estimate fluctuating by nearly $1 million, shake in some resentment about prior projects and stir, and you’ll get some idea of the West St. Paul City Council’s April 8 workshop.

The gathering, intended to clarify plans for a new City Hall building, instead drew complaints from council members about the project’s managing contractor and architect, with some council members arguing for terminating their contracts.

The city has spent nearly two years looking for ways to fix a list of problems with its current 44-year-old building, including leaky roofs, a lack of space in the police department and numerous features that don’t meet building codes.

The council had pursued plans to renovate and add on to the existing structure until a recent cost estimate by Amcon, the city’s chief contractor, showed the cost to completely tear down and rebuild city hall at only $1.8 million more than the $9.5 million renovation price tag. The revelation convinced several council members that building an all-new city hall would be most economical in the long term.

A week later, however, Amcon revised the estimated cost difference to $2.7 million.

“We asked for what it would cost to tear down and rebuild this part of the building, and we got an answer of $1.8 (million),” Council member Dave Napier, who favors a new building, said. “A week later it’s $2.7 million. That threw us all for a loop.”

‘Another nail in your coffin’

Several other council members took turns airing grievances about the planning process, citing frustration with getting specific cost estimates.

Council member Jenny Halverson said no one, city staff included, had responded to a number of questions she’d posed about the project in recent weeks, jading her perspective on the city hall replacement.

“I’ve really lost confidence in this process,” Halverson said.

Council members Dick Vitelli and Ed Iago added lingering frustrations with Amcon about the sports dome to the list of gripes; they pointed to plans for a concession facility within the building that is still uncompleted, despite being scheduled to open when the dome opened to the public last November.

“If you would have had the same contractor in your home remodeling something and it was supposed to be done in November and you’re still sitting here in April and it’s not done, what would you have done with that contract?” Ed Iago asked. “So I’m real concerned about that.”

Todd Christopherson, a representative from Amcon who attended the work session, said the delays were due to an issue with a subcontractor, and Amcon lacked contractual authority to fire the contractor or impose a deadline.

Vitelli remained unimpressed by the explanation.

“Based on what you just said to me, you just put another nail in your coffin, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

“And how is that, sir?” Christopherson replied.

“You don’t oversee the architect, you didn’t oversee the contractor down below, then what value did you bring to the project?” Vitelli responded.

Christopherson repeated that per its contract, Amcon has no workable options.

Iago eventually softened his view on Amcon, saying he thinks much of the blame for changing estimates belonged with the project’s lead architecture firm, CDG Architects. Vitelli, however, said he’d already lost faith with Amcon and called for the council to terminate its contract with the company.

“I don’t think they’ve advised properly,” Vitelli said. “I think we need to start over with a new contractor.”

A focus on spending

While he didn’t rule out the possibility of changing contractors to head the project, Mayor John Zanmiller deflected Vitelli’s suggestion, instead urging the council to decide on a preferred option.

“What I want to do is stop going in seven different directions,” Zanmiller said.

Council member Dave Wright affirmed Zanmiller’s opinion, but argued the council was facing a Catch-22: without firm prices, it would be difficult to decide which option would be best; without pushing forward with an option, however, it would be hard to get the level of detail needed for a solid estimate.

Instead, Wright said, the city should wait on a presentation from its financial consultant, Ehlers and Associates, that would outline long-term repayment models for a new city hall in a range of price points, and how each would fit with the city’s current financial obligations. Based on the results, the council could direct staff and contracts toward a fixed number.

“We’ve got to figure out where we want to go,” Wright said. “We’ve taken three or four steps backwards to start taking five, six, seven, 10 steps forward.”

Ehlers is expected to complete the models by the end of this month and present the findings to the council at the first meeting in May. The council did not pursue further reexamination of its contract with Amcon at the workshop.

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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