Saturday, February 16, 2008

County Office Building Fiasco: Too Many Cooks?

Despite several tries, New York City couldn't fix the Central Park ice skating rink. Floors at the newly opened McCaskey East were in danger of collapse. The future Lancaster County Office Building hobbles towards completion and suffers expensive cost overruns.

Why are government run projects plagued by problems compared with projects sponsored by the private sector?

In most of these cases the problem lies with a state law that prohibits awarding construction projects to a single general contractor. Instead, Pennsylvania requires four or five "Multiple Prime Contractors" ... a general, plumbing, electrical, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and, where applicable, elevator contractor.

In contrast, private developers usually engage a general contractor during the design stage, benefit from the GC's expertise, and hold that general contractor responsible for bringing a quality project to completion within budget and time constraints. Another approach is to solicit bids on the completed plans and specs from several general contractors. The general contractor, in turn, engages the other contractors and is responsible for their work.

With multiple prime contractors, the general contractor may be charged with coordinating the job but is neither fully empowered over the other contractors nor held financially liable if things go wrong. In short, no one is really fully in charge.

An experienced government building official told a NewsLanc reporter that, "So long as the plans and specs were properly drawn and each individual contractors held accountable, there should be little problem."

But an experienced private sector builder took issue, pointing out that plans and specs always contain contradictions and it takes team work among all contractors, architects and engineers to work out the "bugs" before and during the construction phase. "Without one party - the general contractor - fully responsible and liable to get the job done correctly and on time, it is very difficult to get contractors and planners to work cooperatively and to resolve legitimate differences. Instead errors are not discovered and / or corrected which result in both delays and considerable extra costs."

The County Commissioners apparently understand the problem. To their credit, they have engaged a construction manager to intercede with architects, engineers and contractors to try to resolve problems, contain costs, and get the project completed.

In turn, the State should eliminate the requirement of multiple prime contractors, and the county and city should follow suit. Then public projects could be run as efficiently and economically as private undertakings.

As for the Central Park Skating Rink that had sat idle for a couple of years, a young Donald Trump found a way to take over the project from the City, awarded a single contract to a company specializing in building and servicing ice rinks, and the rink was up and running within months.