Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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With Only a Slim Idea of Financing, the $31mil  Hunter-Hilton Marches On

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday's December 20 meeting of the Columbia County 5 culminated in a discussion and aborted vote on what to do about moving forward with the proposed new jail, the Hunter-Hilton. As mentioned in Part I: With DePratter Gone, The 5 March Ahead With the Hunter-Hilton: $25mil budget goes into dreamland, and with only two members of the general public present, agreed to design a $31mil monument to Sheriff Hunter: a jail.

Dewberry & Ajax

Dewberry is the architectural firm designing the jail and Ajax is the construction management firm.

Jim Beight, Dewberry's jail architect explained the project is five months behind schedule.

Mr. Beight told The 5, "Time is money. Right now budget issues have forced the project to lag. The budgetary numbers that we are going to share with you tonight [presented in the preceding article] are based on getting started in earnest right after the first of the year. If this drags out any longer we will have to modify the budget to address an escalation."

He continued, "We wanted to come in here with a full cost. We don't want to just talk construction dollars... Most of the money in the A/E (architectural and engineering) fees has been accommodated already.

A little while later, Mr. Beight told The 5, "We do a very good job at estimating. We vary about 2%, generally, where it is from the estimate to the GMP (guaranteed maximum price). This is an estimate."

See Option 1: the estimate is $31,345,176

Chairman Ronald Williams Weighs In:
not supporting "anything over $25mil."

After Mr. Beight mentioned the project was 5 months behind and that "most of the money in the A/E fees have been accommodated already," Chairman Williams weighed in. His words are as spoken and while he is generally difficult to understand, he continues to treat the microphone as an enemy, making matters worse.

He said, "I don't have a dog in this fight. The worst -unintelligible- in a tax payer's mind is buildin' a jail... It's something you have to have. You ain't gonna' get no -unintelligible - from the public... The only difference between now and then, and could be like it was then, we were being sued by the Department of Corrections to do something with the jail that we had at that time. We are not at that stage yet, but we could be at that stage.

He continued, "I said I was not going to support anything over $25 million."

One of the County's New Politicians: Toby Witt

District 4 Commissioner, Toby Witt began, "This was a heated topic in the campaign."

Commissioner Nash said, "I believe you said, 'Put em' in tents.'"

Commissioner Murphy ribbed, "That's the candidate."

The present County Jail: Mr. Witt's campaign takeaway was not everybody's.

Mr. Witt opined:  The message from the voters was they didn't disagree that the Sheriff needs a jail. That's not the message I got. The message was, 'If you build it, we don't want a tax increase.' I'm not opposed to buildin' a jail... This is not the Board of County Commissioners buildin' a jail. This is a needed infrastructure project for the whole County... I'm all for buildin' the jail with the understanding that there is going to be some tough decisions comin' down the road. If we build this, it's not the BOCC buildin' the jail. It's not the Sheriff's Office buildin' the jail. It's the County as a whole buildin' the jail and recognize to own it and recognize to figure out a way to pay for it as a whole."

The Board of County Commissioners primary responsibility to the taxpayers is fiduciary: they tax and spend tax money. Just like the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" was Alaska's earmark (it eventually failed), the Hunter-Hilton is a creation of the County 5, and while the public will be paying for it (they pay for everything), this County 5, which includes Mr. Witt, owns it.

Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash: talks finance

Commissioner Nash asked about the million plus dollars in escalation costs.

Dewberry's Beight explained, "Escalation is about 1/2 to 3/4 of a percent per month. That figure includes the five month delay... If we don't get released (to proceed), on the numbers we're talking it's about $200,000 a month. Costs don't go down."

Commissioner Williams asked Mr. Nash to explain what was just said.

Commissioner Murphy was also having trouble understanding the escalation.

Commissioner Nash explained, "Basically, you got a million in escalation fees since we started, is what he's sayin'."

Commissioner Nash asked the architect, "So you think that escalation is a real number?"

Mr. Beight answered, "It's a crystal ball."

Mr. Nash continued, talking about the tens of thousands of yards of fill that will be needed for the project.

Then he got into the weeds.

Commissioner Nash: In the Weeds

Mr. Nash continued, "What I'm workin' off of is $27.5mil."

Mr. Nash was reading from a piece of paper. No one seemed to know what it was.

An unidentified commissioner asked, "Where is that number?"

Mr. Nash explained, "That is the –unintelligible-. Don't worry about that number."

An audience member laughed out loud.

Read: Finance 101
Commissioner Nash Does the Numbers

Commissioner Nash is considered the "number's man" on the board and concluded his financial explanation with, "Whatever the end number is we gotta' be able to pay for it."

Mr. Witt added, "I guess what you're gettin' at is you want to know -- those numbers are the ceiling -- so there could be room in there to come -- with all his points -- is this -- are these numbers your ceiling?"

Newly elected District 2 Commissioner Rocky Ford, apparently referring to $25,000,000 said, "I thought we were guaranteed that this wasn't going to go over this."

Dewberry's Beight responded, "This is an estimate. I hope that's what that ceiling is, but that's not what this is. This is an estimate, and we've got delayed so we put a number, an escalation, so as we continue through the design we continue to refine. I would like to say, hopefully, yes, 'that's the ceiling.'"

While listening to The 5's conversation and listening to the audio, it really was not clear what the ceiling was.

Mr. Nash said, "That $27mil is $23mil. I'm not gonna pay you on contingency. I might as well pay you on escalated costs. I mean, you're designing a $23mil jail and it just could have said 27 up there. That's not the jail."

Mr. Beight said, "We're working real hard to deliver this building at 23 million."

That would be the price that The 5 agreed upon sometime ago and had been pointed out by then Commissioner DePratter, "$23mil is less the architect's fees."

Mr. Witt weighed in again, "The only option tonight is to make a motion to bid option one."

Commissioner Williams announced, "I'm not going to call for a vote until I understand what I'm votin' on and which way we headin'."


This is why the legendary Columbia County 5 has its meetings when the public isn't around.

Photo credit Taj Mahal: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

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