Justice Center costs questioned | VailDaily.com

Justice Center costs questioned

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado

Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Critics of the recently approved, $24 million expansion of the county justice center are asking whether it really costs $435 per square foot to build a jail, and officials are saying, “Yes.”

County commissioner candidate Dick Gustafson said the cost for the project is “ridiculous,” and that other companies could build it for half the price.

General Steel, a Colorado company that sells pre-fabricated steel buildings, said it could do the project for half the price. Compared to other justice center projects of similar size and scope, Eagle County’s numbers are high, said a representative from the company.

Eagle County’s 50,000 square-foot expansion will cost about $435 per square foot for the jail portion and about $250 per square foot for the office portion. The improvements include 52 more jail beds, a new courtroom, a jury room and more office space.

“General Steel says they could built it for $11 million to $12 million, and two local architects have confirmed those numbers,” said Gustafson, who has been a vocal opponent of the project.

The company has built eight other justice center or jail projects, most of which were in Colorado. It’s most recent project was for a 52,000-square-foot renovation and construction of the jail, courts and sheriff’s offices in Phelps County, Neb., completed in 2004, similar to Eagle County’s project.

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The expansion cost $4.8 million, averaging $156 per square foot.

However, Eagle County officials said their numbers were the result of a public bid process that took into account both cost and qualifications of the companies.

The costs the county settled on were reviewed and approved as reasonable by an independent consultant, said County Manager Bruce Baumgartner.

Jail construction is extremely specialized and not like building a regular building, said County Project Manager Rick Ullom ” everything from the toilet seats to the plumbing to the walls are unique.

County officials said they met with General Steel and showed them the Justice Center plans, but the company declined to bid on the project.

“They said it was beyond what they could handle,” Baumgartner said. “No one has shown us a cheaper design or a cheaper building. If someone has an allegedly cheaper plan, they should produce it so we have the opportunity to incorporate any good ideas.”

Several other counties are currently building or have finished justice center or jail projects in recent years, including Denver, La Plata and Lancaster Counties.

Lancaster County Manager Frank Lancaster said he isn’t too surprised to see a square foot cost of $435 for a jail.

“That’s not unreasonable for a jail these days,” he said. “Jails are just expensive, and I’m sure building anything up there has a premium compared to down here in Fort Collins.”

Larimer County completed new courtrooms, a jail and a county building in 2003. The jail portion added 300 jail beds and cost $11 million, Lancaster said.

Costs for the jail came out to about $400 per square foot, he said.

Gustafson, who was county commissioner when the original Justice Center was completed in the late 80s, has raised a number of questions about the expansion, including the cost, the bidding process for the contractor and architects, and the lack of transparency.

He said his biggest problem with the project is that the “public has been left out of the process.”

The county decided to fund the project through certificates of participation, a form of lease-purchase financing, out of existing county funds. The decision came after a survey showed that voters would not support a tax increase to build the project.

Gustafson and other opponents of the expansion have called the method a way to bypass the voters.

“(The method) is legal, but it frankly doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

He said he would prefer that the county only build the jail portion for now and pay cash for the project out of existing funds.

However, Baumgartner said the project would have to be built and funded by the county whether or not voters said they would support it. The county must provide courtrooms and a jail, he said.

According to Colorado Revised Statutes, counties must, “at their own expense, provide a suitable courthouse, a sufficient jail, and other necessary county buildings and keep them in repair.” (C.R.S. 30-11-104)

Also, the county received an informal court order from a district judge that separate space had to be provided for the probation officers, who are currently sharing space with the district attorney’s office.

“At the time, we had to look at what our financing options were,” Baumgartner said. “In this way, it’s not a debt for the county, and when the (certificates of participation) are paid off in 20 years, ownership goes to the county.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.