Eastern Washington University’s finance office authorized a $2 million building and landscaping project without a public bid or approval from the Legislature.
But officials say the deal doesn’t require a bid, has the blessing of a state agency and, besides, may save taxpayers money.
Last month, the finance office asked Shea Construction Inc. to handle reconstruction of the center campus mall - with no opportunity for competitors to bid on the job.
Shea is the same Spokane company completing a three-year $14 million remodeling and expansion of the John F. Kennedy Library at the west end of the mall, a popular two-acre meeting place for students, organizations and musicians.
Michael Stewart, EWU’s vice president for business and finance, said the work is an extension of the Kennedy project and, therefore, does not require a separate bid. Remodeling the mall was included years ago in the university’s master plan, he said.
However, mall reconstruction was not included in EWU’s original designs for the library, Shea’s bid for the project or in any appropriation tied to the library project since it was proposed in 1990.
Makeover of the mall includes a raised pond, granite amphitheater, halogen lights, berms and hundreds of young oak and maple trees. The project also calls for red bricks and cobblestones to line a half mile of walkways and pedestrian circles which will connect nine buildings, some of which are 110 yards from the library.
Crews began tearing up the mall in September, just days before EWU’s 7,500 students returned for fall classes on the Cheney campus. A maze of orange webbed construction fencing routes students past concrete trucks, Bobcats and bricklayers.
Letting Shea handle the mall work will save taxpayers money and shave months off the time it would take to call for bids on the job and bring in a different contractor, Stewart said.
“It’s tough times right now, and we wanted to take action,” he said. “Physical facilities are part of the competitive environment (for enrolling students). We didn’t want to wait until next year; we wanted to do it now.”
But some contractors and state legislators question EWU’s logic.
“It may be part of their master plan, but it’s a reach to call it part of the library,” said Sen. Gary Strannigan of Everett, the Republican vice chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“The contractor could be the best guy around for building libraries but not necessarily the best for landscaping. That’s why we have a public bid process.”
State law requires EWU and other public institutions to call for bids on projects of any size, said Bart Potter, spokesman for the state Department of General Administration in Olympia. But the laws don’t say how much the university can add to a contract, such as the Kennedy Library.
Instead of calling for bids on the mall as a separate deal, EWU is using large “change orders” to the library project to pay Shea and its subcontractors for the mall work.
The first change order paid $460,000 to Shea; the second will pay $424,000, university records show.
Stewart and ALSC Architects’ Ron Sims briefed EWU’s board of trustees on the plans in May. A month later, the board agreed to spend the money.
According to three trustees, there was no discussion about who would complete the job or whether the university should call for bids on the work. That responsibility was left up to Stewart and university planners.
Rich Gibb, director of facilities planning, construction and maintenance, said the old mall walkways are so crumbled they cannot be shoveled in the winter. The project will eliminate dying trees and dead-end parking lots while converting ugly patched asphalt into the centerpiece of a modern university.
“This area was completely unusable,” he said. “We had to do something.”
Stewart said architects tied the library and mall together with a modern entrance and hundreds of feet of matching brick and cobblestone walkways.
About $800,000 of the mall’s price tag will come from money saved on the library and other projects. Another $1.2 million will be paid from accounts for improving and maintaining sidewalks, campus grounds and the mall.
Two Spokane contractors who reviewed the university’s documents on the project agreed that the change orders for Shea are unusual.
“In my opinion, they (EWU officials) are circumventing the bid process and trying to avoid alerting the Legislature,” said John Miller, owner of Divcon Inc., a north Spokane contractor that has worked on campus landscaping projects in the past.
“Typically, you don’t want change orders to exceed 10 percent of the project cost because that indicates that either the owner got bad plans or somebody is trying to spend money without bidding it.”
Tim Welsh, president of Garco Construction, builder of the Spokane Arena, said public projects need to go out to bid. But on some occasions, he said, government agencies hide related projects in change orders to save money and time.
“Change orders of this size are unusual,” he said. “But it might be in the best interest of the taxpayers.”
Shea Construction is an established builder owned by David Shea, past chairman of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce. He was unavailable for comment.
EWU architect Richard Clark said the school got a good deal from Shea, which agreed to charge 8 percent for overhead and profit. State agencies are permitted to pay up to 22 percent for overhead and profit.
Maureen McGuire, assistant state attorney who represents EWU, said she is not familiar with laws governing construction change orders. She said EWU officials never asked her for a ruling on the legality of adding $2 million in change orders to the Kennedy Library project.
However, the Office of Financial Management in Olympia signed off on the mall project in May and released the money to EWU beginning July 1.
Harvey Childs, a former Spokane architect who works for the Office of Financial Management on the state capital budget, said the agency approved EWU’s proposal because the mall will be paid for with money left over from other campus projects that were finished under budget.
“This is being done all over the state,” Childs said. “They have so many needs at Eastern, we agreed that they could put it (leftover money) into that project.”
But Strannigan, who works with Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, to oversee state spending, disagrees. He said the state rarely and reluctantly approves unauthorized projects with leftover money.
“We have to be very careful with our priorities of what should be funded, and there’s always some projects that don’t make the cut,” he said. “It gives me great discomfort to hear that we’re operating the state on change orders.”
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