Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County 5 Rubber Stamps $70,000 Courthouse Air Conditioning Study: It was all done before

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The County 5's November 19th Commission meeting set a record for funds approved on the County 5 Consent Agenda: $4,114,811. Slipped in under the radar on the evening's regular agenda was a request by The 5's Chairman, Rusty DePratter, and County Manager Ben Scott for $70,000 to pay for what was described at the meeting as a study of the air conditioning/humidity issues at the County Courthouse, issues which have been ongoing since its renovation in 2000.

The Courthouse air conditioning/humidity issues have been studied and had solutions provided by competent engineers for more than a decade.

The Courthouse Renovation

The Columbia County Courthouse, built in 1905, is a historic building. It was designed by noted architect Frank Pierce Milburn in the Classical Revival style of architecture. It was built with a dome and cupola, which were removed before 1989, but restored in early 2000 during a major renovation and expansion of the courthouse. In 1989, the Columbia County Courthouse was listed in A Guide to Florida's Historic Architecture, published by the University of Florida Press. (Columbia County Courthouse)

Air Conditioning/Humidity Problems from the Beginning

In 1998, the pre-construction phase of the County Courthouse renovation began. TLC Engineering's Hal Barns was the engineer responsible for the mechanical engineering of the HVAC design.

The original HVAC engineering design called for two 250-ton chillers.

Former County Manager, Dale Williams

It was reported that County Manager Dale Williams asked at a pre-construction meeting if "bigger was better?" He was advised that it was. The County decided to go for two 350-ton chillers.

The chillers are designed to work at 100% capacity. The extra capacity caused cooling problems which have been ongoing since before the Courthouse re-opened in 2003.

The Courthouse Renovation Project cost approximately $30,000,000. It included the renovation of the old U.S. Post Office, built during the Great Depression, and known as the Courthouse Annex. This building presently houses the County staff, the Tax Collector, the Property Appraiser, and a division of the County Health Department.

The Courthouse chiller issues became apparent as soon as the system was fired up. The Annex uses the Courthouse chillers for its cooling needs. According to former Facilities and Maintenance Director, Art Butler, the County was told that when the Annex came online "this was supposed to take care of the over capacity." It didn't.

Since the re-opening of the Courthouse in 2003, The Facilities and Maintenance staff had been dealing with the Courthouse AC/chiller issues. During that time the Courthouse has never seen the system go down.

Courthouse Humidity

This chiller is similar to the two in the courthouse.

The high humidity on the 1st floor of the Courthouse has been an ongoing issue. The air intakes for the first floor are on the north side of the building. The high humidity issue is only during the summer months, when the air is the densest.

The Public Defender's Office occupies about 80% of the 1st floor. As a result of the high humidity problems, the Public Defender's Office was having some steamy days.

The Courthouse Chiller Issue
Nov. 19 continues – Scott Asks for a Study

County Manager Ben Scott reported the need to do a $70,000 AC/Chiller/Humidity Study to The 5.

Mr. Scott said that an engineering study was needed to address the Courthouse problems and he was asking for approval. The County's contract civil engineers, North Florida Professional Services, Inc., (NFPS) whose expertise is not mechanical engineering, was suggested for the job.

In under four minutes, Mr. Scott summarized a letter prepared by North Florida Professional Services introducing the "Task Order for Engineering Services."

The Task Order included five project deliverables. Mr. Scott only mentioned two.

Project Task Order deliverables include (from the contract):

1. Provide a load study report for the current system.
2. Provide size required for the new chiller.
3. Provide construction documents for bidding and construction.
4. Provide bid administration with responses to general contractor’s requests for information and issue addenda as needed for the chiller replacement.
5. Provide construction administration with review of general contractor’s submittals, requests for information, pay requests, and change order proposals, on-site field reviews as needed and review of the contractor’s close-out documentation.

The letter and the task order (annotated by the Observer).

Mr. Scott told the County 5 about a meeting held 3 weeks earlier:  

"We had a meeting with [County] staff, North Florida Professional Services, Florida Power & Light, Johnson Controls, and Coburn and Associates.

North Florida Professional Services are engineers that we have a current contract with. Florida Power & Light are utility providers for the courthouse. Johnson Controls we contract with to handle our HVAC system. And Coburn and Associates are specialized engineers for mechanical systems.

We brought those people together to say -- look -- we know we have a problem, how can we come up with a solution to the problem? They discussed various methods and ways of coming up with solutions and in the end we have a contract with North Florida Professional Services. We asked them to work with these other players to come up with a solution and bring us back a solution.

So they drew up a task order for studying the HVAC system at the courthouse at a cost not to exceed $70,000."

Mr. Scott failed to explain Task Order items 3, 4, and 5, which assigned the bid and construction management to NFPS.

The Chiller Studies Were Already Done

In the emails and files of the County, evidence abounds that chiller studies had already been done. The following was reported to the Observer.

On July 11, 2001, Carrier's senior engineer, Tony Siay, did a chiller analysis. The County was advised that the chillers were oversized by 100 tons of capacity.

In 2003, Loren West of Johnson Controls did a chiller study.

In about 2006, Sam Kilgore of York International did a study.

In 2008, ThermaServe, Inc., provided a "Proposal for Chiller Plant Upgrades for the Columbia County Courthouse."

The report began:

We have inspected the existing chiller plant configuration and the original design characteristics of the plant. We have also inspected the two Carrier rotary chillers and logged their operating conditions during a peak building load. Additionally we have interviewed the facility maintenance staff as to the operation of the chillers during mild cooling loads. Based on these observations we are submitting this cost proposal to make upgrades to the chiller plant that will result in significantly lower energy costs.

In 2008, Jeff Simmons of Florida Power and Light became involved and FPL did its own study. That study was based on the ThermaServe Proposal.

The Humidity Studies Were Already Done

Fast forward to August 28, 2014: Kevin Kirby, then County Operations Manager, recommended the hiring of Coburn & Associates, Inc., to do a study of the Courthouse 1st floor humidity problems. In his memorandum to County Manager Dale Williams, Mr. Kirby wrote, "Coburn & Associates, Inc. is the only mechanical engineering firm in this area. The proposed cost has been estimated to be approximately $4,000."

Mr. Kirby's proposal to hire Coburn was approved by the County 5 on September 14, 2014.

Mr. Coburn did the study and the drawings to alleviate the humidity problems. The cost of the drawings was $3,450. The estimate for the work, which was generally to precondition the incoming air, was $50,000 - $60,000. The funds to do the job were added to the 2016 Facilities Management Budget.

In April of 2015, Kevin Kirby, now Assistant County Manager for Operations, met with then County Facilities and Maintenance Director, Art Butler. Documents show the two discussed many issues.

During that meeting, the two went over the "Courthouse First Floor High Humidity Problem" and its estimated repair cost of $50,000 – $60,000. It was understood that the work was going to be performed in January or February of 2016.

County Manager Scott Asks for Approval

At the Nov. 19 County 5 meeting, Mr. Scott told The 5, "So what we're asking you to approve is the task work for engineering services to provide HVAC analysis for the Columbia County Court house."

There was a pregnant pause. The 5 stared at Mr. Scott. Finally, Chairman DePratter asked, "What's the wishes of the Board?"

Commissioner Nash said, "I move to take staff recommendation to fix the AC at the courthouse."

Commissioner Phillips seconded Mr. Nash's motion.

There was no discussion or questions.

County Manager Scott's recommendation was crystal clear. It was to "study," not "fix" the AC at the courthouse."

Before the meeting, your reporter asked Mr. Scott, as he usually does, if there was any other information available. Mr. Scott said there wasn't, but shared a printed copy of his power point presentation. (only the slides for the HVAC/Chillers posted)

County Manager Scott's request/claim that the NFPS Task Order was "to provide HVAC analysis for the Columbia County Courthouse," was an incomplete description of the Task Order.

County Manager Scott claimed that he had received some documents earlier in the day and that NFPS's Bailey, among other things, was going to be charging $18,000 for a "final analysis report." Nowhere in the list of Mr. Bailey's deliverables is a "final analysis report," although he did write elsewhere that he "intended" to do one.

Whatever it was that Mr. Scott claimed he received, it was not made part of the contract between the County and NFPS during the meeting, nor were any changes approved by The County 5.


Another County 5 "Rubber Stamp."

The legend continues.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On December 2, 2015, a Columbia County Resident wrote:

So the County 5 just blew another $70,000.00 of the taxpayers' money. Not surprised at all as these engineering firms are predatory and experts in selling "studies" and services that are not required. I have almost no doubt that somewhere along the line a palms are being greased. Not implying its the commissioners getting the kickbacks, but wish they would do their damn jobs.


This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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