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Palo Alto Library Project, Buoyed by Slashed Prevailing Wages, Now Sinking


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In Palo Alto, CA the construction of the Mitchell Park Library has become a crash course in you-what-you-pay-for-enomics.  

After opting for the low bidder on what will be the city’s largest public works project, things began to unravel for the city which has discovered how expensive shoddy, fly by night work really is. Flintco Pacific, whose bid came in $8 million below the project’s own estimate, has left the city with a shell of a building that has routinely failed to pass inspections.  This was one of the city’s first major projects after scrapping their prevailing wage mandate in 2010.  They did so to keep costs down for the taxpayer.

If only someone had warned them.  Oh, wait, we did in September of 2011.

Palo Alto Online describes the exact scene that pro prevailing wage forces predicted when city council decided to obey their anti-worker donors:

The buildings are up but their interiors remain cavernous and unfurnished, with barren walls, wires dangling from ceilings and uneven floors. The plumbing and mechanical systems remain a work in progress. The city is still sorting out with its contractors an issue of sliding doors, most of which will likely need to be replaced. Many months after the project was supposed to be completed, landscaping remains strewn with crates, pallets and construction equipment.

Even if the library opens by the end of this year, as the city hopes and plans, it will be a year and a half late and cost millions more than the city hoped to spend when it signed the construction contracts in August 2010.

There are multiple reasons for the delays and most lead back to Flintco, the contractor with magic underbidding powers. The potion wore off quick, though, when they asked that the contingency budget for the project be raised by 25 percent just a year after winning the bid:

… the most glaring problems can be attributed to Flintco, whose mismanagement of subcontractors, frequent clashes with city staff and construction managers, shoddy work, procedural delays and reluctance to devote the necessary manpower to complete the project have helped drag it well past deadline. Even if faulty designs contributed to Flintco’s inability to complete the project on time, as the company has maintained with some justification throughout the process, the designs do not explain why so much of the work failed repeated inspections and had to be redone (at one point, the city considered it a victory when half of the windows passed a water test). Nor do they explain Flintco’s inability to deal with significant but seemingly fixable flaws — including windows that failed water-proof tests and incorrect sliding doors that had been installed.

It was these factors that pushed the city last month to initiate default proceedings against Flintco, a process that could lead to the company being replaced, delaying construction by at least a few more months. With six months left until the city’s latest deadline for completing the project and with work commencing on the expansion of Main Library, Palo Alto now finds two of its largest library branches closed at the same time — the very situation that council members were hoping to avoid when they were planning out the bond projects. This only adds to the pressure to clean up the mess at Mitchell Park as soon as possible.

Palo Alto’s Public Works Director, Mike Sartor, is now on the offensive, blasting runaway costs and questioning the work being done at the library.  He worried about how it would effect the future of the city.

The complex’s significance rests not only in the vast public needs that it is expected to fulfill. As Sartor pointed out in his Sept. 12 presentation, the success of the south Palo Alto project could determine the city’s success with voters on bond projects down the road — a prescient point given that the council is now considering asking voters in November 2014 to approve a measure that would fund major infrastructure projects.

“There’s a lot riding on this project, particularly considering future potential bond elections,” Sartor said, explaining why he was “freaking out” about the runaway costs.

Sartor told the council the purpose of his request to raise the budget was “to keep the project moving on schedule and to avoid claims down the road.” Today, two years and nine months after construction began, it’s clear neither goal will be met.

Big business interests fight against the prevailing wage by suggesting slashing it will help the taxpayer. Palo Alto’s Mitchell Library is an example of how this philosophy is inherently flawed.


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