West St. Paul City Council members last week fired the architect and construction manager that had been working on City Hall improvements, even though starting over will mean forfeiting some money.
The city has spent about $300,000 on plans to remodel or rebuild City Hall, and how much of that will be lost will depend upon whether the new architect can use parts of the old plans, Acting City Manager Sherrie Le said.
Construction management company Amcon and architect the Collaborative Design Group are the two firms the City Council fired. The architect designed the city’s new sports dome and provided designs for City Hall improvement options. Amcon was the construction manager on both projects.
Council Member Jenny Halverson proposed terminating both contracts after making her own investigation into billing statements submitted by both firms and finding them lacking in detail and substantiation.
“I think it boils down to a loss of confidence” in the firms, Halverson said. “I don’t take this lightly.” Problems that cropped up with both projects have raised red flags, and the decision about City Hall “is a legacy decision that will last years and years,” she said.
Council members first became unhappy with the architect and management firms in July, when they presented plans for renovating the existing building, at 1616 Humboldt Av., as a bigger and better space for the police department and building a new energy-efficient administration building and council chambers beside it.
An initial study by another firm had estimated the cost at $7.4 million. Collaborative Design Group presented an estimate of about $11.4 million, and the difference in price gave council members considerable heartburn, as Zanmiller put it at the time. The city then started scaling back the project and rethinking costs, draining momentum and leaving the council members unsure how to proceed.
At the same time, the architects designed the sports dome, which opened in November. When the dome was finished, the city says, it was clear that the architect had not correctly designed the space for concessions and that neither Amcon nor the city had caught it in the plans. The city has hired a contractor to build that, with those costs still being sorted out.
The city won’t hire a new architect right away. Council members decided not to start again on the project until after a new city manager is hired.
A headhunter is leading the second attempt to hire a new city manager. Forty-two people have applied.
Mayor John Zanmiller said the city should have a new administrator on board and be able to return to the City Hall discussion within four months.
Council Member Ed Iago questioned whether the city staff had carefully evaluated the bills and justified the payments to the firms.
Le said she worked with City Engineer Matt Saam on managing the contracts. “We didn’t have any concerns they weren’t doing the work. I am satisfied that they worked the number of hours and did the things they said they did.”
Council Member Dick Vitelli said he considers the firings a matter of not being happy with the service provided. “Haven’t we all invested in things that turned sour? I know I have.”
In January more than half of the council was replaced by election or appointment, and newcomers Halverson, Vitelli, Pat Armon and Dave Napier started asking questions.
It’s now clear that a majority favor tearing down some or all of the current building and starting fresh.
“You don’t need to convince us that the building needs something,” Vitelli said. “This bunker is not state-of-the-art for the future.”