Political Ping-Pong: Contractor pulls out as Washington County Courthouse renovations remain at standstill

Gary B. Gray • Jan 23, 2014 at 10:29 AM

Kingsport’s GoinsRashCain is pulling its project manager trailer from behind the Washington County Courthouse, and it’s hard to say when co-owner Hiram Rash will return to oversee completion of the building’s second-floor renovations.

The ping-pong ball effect — the bouncing of an issue from one side to another — is beginning to appear like standard operating procedure with county officials and their efforts to get the renovations back on track. The latest volley sends the matter back to the County Commission’s County Owned Property Committee.

Budget Committee members on Wednesday reconvened a meeting begun Jan. 15 to discuss with Rash, and County Owned Property Committee members, whether options and alternatives could be found to lower his estimated cost. However, too many questions remained about pricing, labor, timing and financing.

Back across the table went the proposal.

“You’re not going to hurt my feelings if you say, ‘Hiram, go back to Kingsport,’ ” Rash said. “I’ll pick up and go. I’ve got plenty to do. The way you’re talking about it, that’s fine with me. It’s your prerogative.”

Rash could not guarantee his estimated cost would not exceed an additional $150,000. Nor could he say how much taxpayers might save by using inmate labor for at least part of the remaining construction. Finally, Budget Committee members are concerned money borrowed for capital projects tagged for exterior repairs could be shifted over if they agreed to pay the premium on the interior renovations.

“I need clear direction,” Rash said. “I can’t do anything more at this point. Quite frankly, I thought I’d be starting around Christmas and be out by now.”

County Mayor Dan Eldridge recommended at the Jan. 15 meeting that COP members be present. He said Wednesday that members had been contacted and asked to attend. Not one showed up.

The COP’s recommendation to hire Rash, drop the use of inmate labor and instead hire 18 licensed subcontractors, suppliers and vendors, would require an additional $110,000 to complete the project. A plan put together last year revealed a total estimated cost of $220,000, but the additional costs would bring the tally to $330,000. The county has only a bit more than $31,000 carried over from last year to complete the project.

“Looks to me like we had a plan and we went off that plan,” said Joe Grandy, Budget Committee member.

The sticking points not only include a move from inmate labor to subcontracted labor, which obviously will cost more, but also the nearly $27,000 that would be paid to the general contractor for a construction management fee, project manager fee and “general requirements.”

“I really just tried to digest what had been done to this point,” Rash said. “And based on the information given to me by Willie (Shrewsbury, county purchasing agent) there are items still needed to complete the project. I’m on the outside looking in.”

Eldridge said plans generally have stayed the same, though Rash’s estimates for casework, mill work, carpentry, plumbing and other specialty finishes caught him by surprise. Rash said licensed carpenters make about $25 an hour. He also said he met with the fire marshal and architect last week who reminded him some of the work, including plumbing and sprinkler installation, for example, must be performed by licensed subcontractors.

“We’ve discussed this with the architect, and we’d prefer using his recommendations,” Rash said. “There’s a litany of things in here we think you’re going to need to buy to complete the project.”

That list includes, for now, 23 items, from routine fire marshal inspections to toilet room accessories, as well as new doors, drywall and fixtures.

“My goal was to identify what was needed and work up a price,” he said.

Construction began near the first part of last year, but the job was temporarily shut down in June when it was found the State Fire Marshal’s Office had not received construction plans from local architect Fred Ward. Shrewsbury has said all along the original intent was to use a lot of inmate labor and Ward to guide the project.

Construction on a renovated commission chambers and other improvements resumed a few days after the temporary shutdown with the state’s blessing. Nonetheless, then-COP Chairman Mark Ferguson stepped in at that time and demanded an accounting of how much had been spent, what materials were on hand, and what was needed to complete the project.

Wood, nails and other building materials have sat motionless for nearly seven months in the stark room that someday will become the new commission chambers. Meanwhile, Eldridge continues to work out of the old office building near the courthouse until his new digs are complete off a hallway on the second floor.

Current COP Chairwoman Phyllis Corso told the Johnson City Press last week the effort to get the project back on track has been “like pulling teeth.”

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