$150M jail expansion late, costly, now on hold

Palm Beach County taxpayers are on the hook for a $150 million jail expansion that has left fewer beds for inmates and remains too costly to finish, a Sun Sentinel investigation has found.

Some county leaders now question whether the project was needed at all.

Miscalculations, faulty designs, and spotty county oversight drove up the cost of what was already one of South Florida's priciest public works projects.

What went wrong? The Sun Sentinel found:

• Consultants hired by the county wrongly predicted an increase in inmates, fueling the grand expansion plan.

• Architectural designs — submitted by the HOK firm and approved by county officials — failed to meet state building codes. That set off a domino effect of changes that helped escalate costs.

• County officials approved a staggering 180 changes to the project for the lead contractor, Broward County -based Moss & Associates. Most of these "change orders" were submitted in amounts low enough that they didn't require County Commission review. But together they nearly reached $9 million.

• The contract allowed Moss nearly $900,000 for contractors' travel and relocation expenses — without requiring contractors to document how much they actually had spent.

After more than four years of jail "expansion," the county has 200 fewer jail beds than when it started.

The county's budget crunch has put the brakes on finishing the job, and questions are growing about how closely officials monitored a project that so far has cost as much as buying 5,000 police cars.

"There's not a tremendous amount of oversight," Palm Beach County Inspector General Sheryl Steckler said. "Large dollar contracts, multiple change orders … all of those are risk factors."

Moss & Associates referred all questions from the Sun Sentinel about the jail expansion to county officials, declining the opportunity to comment. HOK did not respond to several requests for an interview made by phone and email.

Taxpayers in debt

The jail expansion has increased the county's long-term debt, and will cost taxpayers about $11 million a year for another 26 years.

Construction on the watered-down, behind-schedule first phase of the project is supposed to be done before the end of this year. County officials won't commit to a timetable for finishing the full expansion.

The jail project expense came about the same time that Palm Beach County was raising property tax rates, cutting road repairs and slashing spending to head off budget shortfalls tied to slumping tax revenues and a struggling economy.

Today, some county decision-makers question the wisdom of their actions.

"It's really all about timing," said County Commissioner Karen Marcus, who supported pressing on with jail improvements at the time. "We added debt ... it was probably something we could have waited on."

The original miscalculation came in the midst of South Florida's building boom, when Palm Beach County officials looked ahead to what they thought would be an overcrowding crisis at the county's three aging detention facilities.

In 2005, county consultants estimated that by this year, more than 3,200 inmates would be behind bars each day, bringing the main jail near West Palm Beach, the stockade near the fairgrounds and the West Detention Center in Belle Glade to near-capacity.

Those same projections anticipated exceeding jail capacity by 2013.

Without more room for inmates and other improvements, expansion supporters said, the county risked a costly legal fight over jail conditions.

The county's Criminal Justice Commission — made up of law enforcement and local elected officials — was among the supporters of a $267 million jail expansion that was supposed to add nearly 1,300 beds, as well as renovating and upgrading existing buildings. They pointed to drug-related arrests as a key cause of the expected rise in the inmate population.

"Communities are demanding more arrests," Sheriff Ric Bradshaw told county commissioners in 2006 as they considered the jail expansion proposal. "They basically want you to take them out of their neighborhoods."

The County Commission approved the expansion, but just like the South Florida housing boom went bust, projections of a criminal onslaught that would need locking up proved unfounded.

Jail occupancy dropped.

Too few bad guys

In 2006, Palm Beach County was averaging 2,666 inmates per day, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. The current jail population is about 2,200, according to the sheriff's office.

In retrospect, there may have been grounds for greater skepticism about consultants' prediction for a boom in the inmate population. Back in 2006, Palm Beach County had one of the lowest incarceration rates in Florida — 2.1 inmates per 1,000 residents, according to the Department of Corrections. Today, the rate is 1.2 per 1,000.

Local officials point to several reasons why the consultants were so wrong in their projections, including slowdowns in the economy and the influx of new residents,

and the success of programs allowing nonviolent offenders to avoid jail before trial. But the dropoff in the inmate population didn't put an end to the jail project.

Officials instead shifted the focus, from jail expansion to upgrades and refurbishments. That was supposed to create the infrastructure to allow the facilities to grow in a later phase of construction.

The county demolished nine buildings and shuttered the remaining available jail space at the stockade near the South Florida Fairgrounds, while pressing ahead with expanding the jail and courthouse facilities in Belle Glade.

Second-phase plans call for reopening the stockade detention center and relocating booking from the main jail to a centralized site at the fairgrounds, but those plans remain shelved for budget reasons.

The county also built a $5 million video visitation center beside the closed stockade.

In addition, the county built a new dispatch center in Belle Glade and expanded the sheriff's substation there. New administrative offices were constructed at the Belle Glade jail, which was decorated with a public art project costing more than $100,000.

The trade-offs will be worth it to taxpayers in the long run, supporters of the jail project assert. They say improvements to aging facilities were overdue and that room for more inmates still can be added when needed.

"If we had known the [jail] population was going to go down, would we have done something differently? Sure," County Administrator Robert Weisman said. "But it's not like the money has been wasted."

Domino effect

Problems emerged almost as soon as demolition began for the jail and court facilities targeted for restoration, the Sun Sentinel found.

There were columns behind walls that weren't supposed to be there and unexpected power lines under concrete slabs, leading to unforeseen delays and costs.

County officials say they found design errors in the architectural plans prepared by HOK, an architectural and planning firm with 25 offices on three continents, county records show.

Some designs didn't meet state building code requirements. Design details needed for construction were omitted.

The design problems and other hurdles led to a "domino effect" of setbacks and project revisions, said Audrey Wolf, who heads the county's facilities department.

"There were many unforeseen conditions. Some that couldn't have been anticipated. Some that should have been anticipated," Wolf said.

The construction hiccups added to a flurry of more than 180 contractor change orders for Moss & Associates, the Fort Lauderdale-based company that was chosen as the project's "construction manager at risk."

Re-sloping a roof, fixing door designs, replacing sinks, additional fireproofing, installing hot water lines and replacing security glass were examples of errors and omissions and other required changes that came up during construction, according to the county.

Other change orders resulted from add-ons requested by the county or the sheriff's office.

Those ranged from $71,000 for an automated mobile fingerprint identification system to $66,000 for a "challenge course," with ropes, walls and other obstacles once used by the now-closed Eagle Academy school.

Not all of the change orders cost taxpayers' money. The county contends that about half of change orders resulted in savings, largely due to the county buying materials that would normally be handled by the contractor in order to avoid paying a 6 percent sales tax.

Change orders added about $9 million in project expenses — half of that due to reported "errors and omissions," according to the county. The County Commission signed off on just 10 of the change orders for Moss, with county staffers or the contract review committee approving the rest.

That's too many, said County Commissioner Paulette Burdick.

"The extent of the unforeseen conditions was excessive," said Burdick, who as a School Board member supported the jail expansion when it began, but now as a commissioner questions the oversight of the contract changes and expenses. "One hundred and eighty change orders is an excessive amount, particularly with the dollar values that are attached to them."

Below the threshold

Many of the requested change orders were not scrutinized by the County Commission at a public meeting because, taken one by one, their dollar values fell below the threshold that requires commission approval.

The county facilities department can approve change orders up to $50,000, and the county's Contract Review Committee can approve contract modifications up to $100,000. Change orders that exceed $100,000 require County Commission approval.

While that system is supposed to provide flexibility to keep public projects moving, the stack of changes approved for the jail project has raised questions.

Burdick said as a general rule, allowing too many change orders can enable contractors to "take advantage of the bidding process."

Commission Chairwoman Shelley Vana said the

county in the future needs to "be serious" about limiting change orders.

The inspector general objected to the county agreeing to pay the contractor a fixed amount for estimated travel and housing costs, instead of requiring that receipts be submitted and reimbursements limited to documented expenses.

The fixed amounts have totaled more than $370,000 for travel and per diem expenses like meals, and more than $500,000 for moving allowances, relocation expenses and temporary living expenses, all paid with taxpayer money.

Wolf said the county negotiated those totals based on the types of travel and living expenses the contractor expected to incur, including airline tickets, furniture moving, hotel stays, and vehicle mileage. She said that put the "risk" on the contractor of having to cover any cost overruns for housing and travel.

But Steckler said paying only expenses backed by receipts is a better safeguard of taxpayers' money.

"How do you audit when you don't have the documents?" she said.

To date, the county has paid Moss & Associates $97 million for the jail expansion, according to the county clerk and comptroller's office.

HOK has been paid $12 million.

The remaining $41 million has gone to other contractors and vendors.

Under the project contract, the county intends to seek reimbursements to compensate for the errors and omissions in design plans, but there are limits to how much it can recover. The county won't know how much it plans to purse until work ends, said Wolf.

Postponed "as long as possible"

While the expansion so far hasn't added jail beds, county officials contend the work has improved outdated facilities and allowed for more efficient jail operations that will ultimately save taxpayers money.

Sheriff's officials say the video center makes visitation more efficient — avoiding security checks while eliminating the chance for passing weapons, drugs and other contraband.

Also, the design of the Belle Glade jail was intended to make it easier to supervise inmates and to lessen the instances where inmates have to be moved from one area to another.

Yet, those design features so far haven't translated to a reduction in the number of sheriff's office employees who run the jails.

The 983 corrections employees is three more than the sheriff's office had in 2006.

The western jail expansion was supposed to be completed by 2010. Construction of the new courtroom and related facilities at Belle Glade is now expected to take until the end of this year.

The stockade expansion and main detention center renovations, once scheduled to be finished by 2013, remain on hold. County officials say that thanks to the infrastructure improvements made — including adding to kitchen and laundry facilities and reconfiguring water pipes and electric lines — jail capacity can eventually be boosted beyond 5,000 beds.

"It's going to happen," Bradshaw, the sheriff, said. "It's just going to happen slower."

But ongoing budget strains have forced the county to postpone the full jail expansion project.

"We want to delay that as long as possible," Weisman said.

abreid@sunsentinel.com , 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews


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