Editorial: BernCo's seal plan puts a spotlight on dubious spending - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: BernCo’s seal plan puts a spotlight on dubious spending

Charlene Pyskoty has done Bernalillo County taxpayers a seven-figure favor by openly questioning the need for millions more in improvements to the county’s already over-budget new Downtown Albuquerque headquarters.

The District 5 Bernalillo County commissioner’s reservations about spending another $4.7 million on a project that has already more than doubled its initial cost projection of $33 million had the proper chilling effect last week. The commission took no final action on the proposal Jan. 25, instead voting to defer a vote until a later meeting.

Commissioners should recognize the potent “Taj Mahal” symbolism in play. The county’s motto, “We’re more than you think,” takes on a whole new meaning when you consider how cost overruns have dominated spending on capital and debt service on this project.

The proposed work comes just five months after the county moved into the former Public Service Company of New Mexico building, 415 Silver SW, at Alvarado Square. The move consolidated about 800 government employees and a number of functions that were previously scattered across multiple sites.

After spending $68 million readying the building for the move, commissioners are being asked to green-light another $4.7 million to replace windows, create three new exam rooms for an on-site medical clinic for employees and their dependents, finish work spaces on the building’s seventh floor and add more security cameras and features.

While some of this may be justified, it’s wrapped in the enigma of a forever design-build contract and punctuated with at least one egregious example of wasteful spending. Do we really need a giant Bernallilo County seal to adorn the building’s unique sloping exterior wall — and be illuminated with color-changing lights — at a whopping $331,000?

Granted, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to sunk costs, but if it doesn’t add value to the work environment of county employees or the services county residents receive, why spend it? That’s money that could go to new fire stations or a sheriff’s substation — since public safety projects are purportedly the county’s highest priority.

And let’s not forget the Alvarado Square project has already contributed cash to the public art collection in the state. The state’s One Percent for Arts Program takes 1% of the cost of capital projects (or a max of $200,000) and sets it aside for the purchase of art in public places. Rather than a giant lit-up version of county letterhead, how about something unique from a local artist to signal where you do county business?

During last week’s meeting Pyskoty’s prudence meter kicked into overdrive as she voiced concern about the “constant (Alvarado Square) change orders asking for millions of dollars” and that the county keeps giving the jobs to the project’s original contractor, HB Construction, rather than putting them out to bid. She suggested finally wrapping up the Alvarado Square design-build contract, reflecting on a conversation she had with the county attorney when the project was starting a few years ago.

“I asked … ‘When does it end? When do we know we’re done?’ And I remember (he) said something like, ‘It ends when you say it ends,'” Pyskoty said last week. “My feeling is maybe, for me, it ends tonight.”

Whether the changes are prudent or needed should be a matter of robust debate, and county staff have made decent arguments in support of some of the spending. For example, the windows are approaching the end of their lives, and installing new ones will reduce the county’s energy expenses and aid an active county grant request for ballistic window coating. Given last fall’s vandalism, in which gunshots shattered several panes of glass and shuttered business operations for days, that makes sense.

As for going out to bid on every change order, there is an upside to maintaining the design-build contract with HB. The county doesn’t want other contractors doing anything that might void HB’s warranties on the initial work.

But that debate needs to happen, and Pyskoty’s central question of “when does it end?” deserves an answer before more work is added.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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