Friday, April 11, 2008

Who Really Busted The LAPD Headquarters Budget? Or - Why Can't City Hall - Or The Press - Get Anything Right?

My lastest offering at CITYWATCH:

Who Really Busted the LAPD HQ Budget Or – Why Can't City Hall Ever Get Anything Right?

by Brady Westwater

When local politicians demand to know who caused the budget overruns at the new LAPD Headquarters Building (the PHQ) – all they need to do is …. look in a mirror.

The same advice can be given to a majority of the voters in the City of Los Angeles.

Not wanting to face reality, though, everyone seems content to blame the one city entity not responsible for the cost overrun – the Los Angeles City Bureau of Engineering; the city agency that administers the city's construction projects; the city agency about which some outraged writers have asked how can we allow these same people to keep screwing over us taxpayers again and again? Unfortunately, it's easier to fall into that type of rhetoric with all the widely publicized cost overruns at the Los Angeles United School District, the MTA's over budget subways and the County'sendless nightmare at King-Drew Medical, to name just a few local fiscal fiascos.

The only minor problem here is that the Bureau of Engineering – the BOE - had nothing to do with any of those disasters. In fact, in striking contrast to those out of control projects, their two largest projects in the early part of this century were done on time – or better – and they all were built well under budget. But, of course, you never saw any headlines on that; so to better understand what really happened at the PHQ, we need to look at the true record of the BOE.

First, the BOE built 32 public libraries from Prop DD funds and brought them in so far under budget they were able to build four more new libraries from the savings. Next, the BOE supervised 600 million dollars of Prop Q funds for 13 different public safety projects. Of them, three are finished and 95% of the work is done on the rest of the projects; and these projects are also all on time or ahead of schedule - plus the BOE just announced to the city council that they will come in under budget at about 65 Million dollars.

Not that you will ever read one word about any of this in the press, of course.

Now does this sound like an agency so badly managed that 32 changes have to be made to its procedures (as controller Laura Chick has proposed in her recent audit) to prevent another PHQ disaster from happening? And if they are not responsible – then who is?

Well, the first culprit is – us. This badly needed new facility (and one good quake and Parker Center – and everyone in it - is toast) was twice taken to the voters – and twice rejected. So the funds had to be cobbled together from other sources to get it built – and this was at a time when both land and construction costs were rapidly increasing.

But the real perps in this mess are the decades of elected officials representing greater Los Angeles who failed to properly plan how our Civic Center was to be developed.

But this was not always the case. Starting in the 1960's a joint powers org – the Civic Center Authority – was set up by the City and County of Los Angeles (with participation by the feds, the state and three other government agencies), to plan the Civic Center, and they initially accomplished a lot. But they stopped meeting over ten years ago (among other reasons, turf problems prevented certain decisions from being made) – and they never put together a master plan for where the new city and county facilities would be built.

With no plan, when there was a need to build a new 911 communications center, the city just plopped the 911 building on a corner of the block containing Parker Center, despite the objections of a group of us who said this would prejudice any future development of that critical block.

And then – when it came time to build a new Police Headquarters and jail and motor pool – because of the setback problems from the 911 Center – it was discovered – surprise, surprise – they could not build a new PHQ on the block without tearing down Parker Center and the jail first.

This was the only reason why the new PHQ was not built on that site.

This then caused the city to purchase the 1st and Alameda site, only to try and change to the Transamerica property after the residents of Little Tokyo proved how devastating the project would be to their community (at least two land swaps deals were also considering during all of this), but then that new site didn't work and so the project went back to First and Alameda and lastly – finally – it landed at 1st and Spring, where another group of residents fought it, further delaying it.

In just that first year, I personally attended over 50 public meetings and many more private ones.

But even then, even once the new PHQ site was located – the city still had to find another adjacent parcel for parking and the motor pool. So by the time it was all over – figuring out just where to build everything – almost 3 years hadpassed since the decision to build was made in 2003. It then took another almost two years to close escrow on the land for the parking which is just now starting construction.

This brings us to Laura Chick's in most ways highly accurate – though often misinterpreted – performance audit which finds a number of reasons for the escalation of the project's costs. The main ones though are increasing land costs, increasing construction/labor/materials costs and the inability to get contractors to bid in an overheated market. All three of these would have been avoided if the city had a master plan for the Civic Center – with a vetted and approved site for the project before they started it.

Or, if they had not built the 911 Center in the worst possible location.

As for the proposed reforms for the BOE in the audit: the BOE's administration was another reason she gives for possible – though those reasons are considerably more speculative than demonstrated - cost increases.

Even Laura Chick admits that almost all of the price increases of the project were justified by the real world costs by the time the land was actually bought and the buildings were actually being built – and not by any mismanagement – and I feel she proves her case exceptionally well here.

And the report pretty clearly demonstrates, that very little – if any – of the increased costs could have been realistically stopped, even with her proposed reforms, valid as many of them are.

The main reform she proposes – the Construction at Risk Method – is probably banned by the city charter and would have never been allowed by the city attorney.

Additionally, no convincing proof is offered in the report that there was anything the city could have done to have gotten a second bidder – another valid concern of hers.

And, I disagree with a few other of her assertions, such as the statement that the one retired person – who is still working on the project, was the only person with working historic knowledge of the project.

I can easily state as someone who was daily involved in this project - and in contact with everyone in the city family involved with it – for the first three-plus years – that is simply not true. The leadership team at the BOE is an unusually deep one, and it was one I often deeply argued with about highly technical policy considerations.

As additional proof of my assertion that the BOE's previously successful guidelines were not the problem, once the site was nailed down and construction started – and it is now 65% finished – it has been running with less than a 2% of budget in change orders – which given this project's history – is nothing less than a Mohammed becoming a Holly Roller class of miracle.

So, has the city corrected their underlying mistake? Have they reconvened the Civic Center Authority (which Jan Perry did call for... back in 2002)? Is the city now working on better – any – coordination among the over dozen – yes over a dozen– projects and
plans currently in the works in the Civic Center? Well, that answer is simple.

No! Non! Nyet!

I mean, this is the City of Los Angeles. The city government where the real motto is, what is mine is mine and what is yours, should be mine.

And if current soap opera starring Laura Chick, Tony Cardenas and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in their Bloods/Cripps styled showdown over gang turf doesn't prove that to you, I don't know what will.

So each of the dozen projects in the Civic Center area will continue to plod along – with little or no communication among them, all of them headed to hell in a handbasket. And there is no longer even a mention of developing a new plan for the Civic Center, other than in the far distant community plan update.

Now this might give one the impression that our city is led by a bunch of morons and idiots. It is not. We are lucky to have many capable and even gifted leaders in this city – capable and gifted people who just happen to sometimes act like morons and idiots.

And trust me, there is a very real difference, as small as it may at times seem.

William Goldman once famously said, about Hollywood, that it was a place where 'Nobody Knows Anything'. But if he was talking about City Hall (rather than about our second largest purveyor of smoke, mirrors and fertilizer) – a better quote might have been – "The Place Where Nobody Ever Learns Anything". (Brady Westwater is a writer, a long-time downtown and neighborhood council activist and Chair of the LA NC Congress Economic Development Committee. Westwater is a regular contributor to CityWatch. He can be reached at: bradywestwater@gmail.comThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ) (Current construction photos from CurbedLA blog report.) _

Vol 6 Issue 30
Published: Apr 11, 2008

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