Jail expansion dispute nears settlement

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For nearly seven months, work to expand the county jail has been on hold. Now the county manager says an end is in sight.

County Manager Eric Zamora said he is hoping to take the results of two months of mediation with a local contractor to the commissioners on Dec. 7 for their approval.

The delay happened this spring when the contractor told the county the project could not be completed for the agreed upon $1.1 million.

Lone Mountain Construction owner Nick Blea says the cost increase happened because the county changed the scope of the project, which was supposed to have been completed in August.

"We discussed 4,000 square feet at $1.1 million, to house 40 inmates," Blea said. "The problem was, when meetings were held, there were a lot of things the county was interested in, future expansion for one.

"The jail houses men and women, which meant extra security and walls," he said. "Then it was 5,300 square feet and you can't build it for the same price. We were still willing to do the 4,000 square feet."

But Zamora says the project was always 5,300 square feet.

"When we talked to them last summer, it was a 5,300 square foot facility. Lone Mountain had those plans and concepts in October, before they signed the contract," Zamora said.

When the county administrators began the project last year, Zamora said they found out they could utilize the Cooperative Education Service, which allows government agencies to contract for services without going through a lengthy bid process.

"We found that a local company, Lone Mountain, was on the list. Basically CES does the bidding process so counties and municipalities can hire companies quickly," Zamora said. "We showed them the concept of the pre-manufactured cells and they said they could do it."

The cells are portable, two-bunk units that can be stacked two high and side-by-side, like Legos, Zamora said.

The cells come fully operational with electric, heating and cooling and plumbing stubbed out the back, ready to be placed on a prepped site.

"The concept is a 'hard' core with a 'soft' shell. The security is built into the cell," Zamora said. "There is a toilet and shower in each cell, which is helpful in a lockdown situation. All the cells can be segregated from each other in terms of environmental controls in case of a fire."

After discussions began with Lone Mountain, then general manager for the company, Tom Blaine, came before the county commission on Sept. 1.

"The commissioners grilled him. 'Can you do this for $1.1 million?' 'Yes.' We worked with CES to develop the contract and it was signed on Nov. 17," Zamora said.

During the Sept. 1 commission meeting, Zamora said Blaine agreed that Lone Mountain would adsorb the one percent CES fee, but the county would have to pay the gross receipts taxes on the project.

After the contract was signed, Zamora said the company began working on the project, prepping the site to the north of the existing jail. Then in late January, early February, representatives from Lone Mountain told the county the project couldn't be done for $1.1 million.

"They said it can't be done for $1.1 million, it's now $1.6 million," Zamora said. "They said we changed the scope of the job."

The money the county has available for the expansion project is just more than $1.6 million. It is left over from the old jail mill levy that expired at the end of 2009.

The mill levy was being collected to pay off the bond for the construction of the existing jail, and Zamora said the excess can only be spent on further expansion and furnishing of the jail.

Work stopped around April, and Zamora and the county and Lone Mountain spent the next three to four months trying to hammer out an alternative concept for the project.

"One they had was, instead of stacking the cells to do it all on one level and make it twice as long. I'm not sure how making the building twice as long was cheaper," Zamora said.

In addition, one long corridor presented several security risks for both inmates and jail staff, so the idea was rejected, the manager said.

"We asked for cost break downs and what we got back were things like base course at $16 to $17 per cubic yard, concrete flatwork at $26 a square foot instead of $4," he said. "We asked them to justify their costs, to give us something we can get our arms around. We could never agree on what we were getting charged for."

The central issue in all this, Zamora said, is how to resolve the issue and get the expansion done.

There are basically three options, he said. Find an alternative concept they can all agree on and go forward, terminate the contract or call the bond.

"The bond is like an insurance policy for any public project. If the contractor does not finish the project, the bonding company pays out to complete the project. The details are worked out between the bonding company and the contractor," Zamora said. "The harmful part of that solution is it severely limits the contractor's ability to get a bond for the next project."

Blea said the company and county could not come to a "meeting of the minds. It could have cost $200,000 to $300,000 for the additional square footage or more," he said. "We could never settle. There were certain things they thought they couldn't do without.

"It's county money and I don't want anyone to get hurt," Blea said. "They need a jail and only have a certain amount of money. As far as I'm concerned, the mediation is concluded and was successful."

Zamora said he couldn't disclose the outcome of the mediation at this time because the commission hadn't given its final approval.

In the meantime, the portable cells are being stored at the manufacturer's facility in Colorado Springs and will be under cover through the winter, Zamora said. There is a storage fee of $2,000 a month, which Lone Mountain has been covering since talks began this spring.

"But once the mediation is complete, depending on the outcome, the county may have to pick up that cost," Zamora said.


Contact Julia M. Dendinger