County work on jail illegal, auditor says
King County set out to fix security at its jail five years ago but ended up breaking state law by failing to get competitive bids.
Seattle Times staff reporter
King County set out to fix security at its jail five years ago but ended up breaking state law by failing to get competitive bids on a project that has rocketed up to $51.6 million, more than three times the original estimate, according to a new state audit.
By the time extras like remodeling the jail booking area, pharmacy, infirmary and offices were added on to the emergency project to replace the electronic security system that controls doors and alarms, the state Auditor's Office wrote, "The cost of work outside the scope of the security project was approximately $14.5 million."
County Executive Ron Sims' staff said in their written response to the audit that they were, "without question," justified in declaring an emergency to replace the jail's decrepit security system and waiving bidding rules.
But the cost of that work has grown from $15.9 million to $51.6 million in five years.
The state audit didn't address the other reasons for the project's increased cost.
The report recommended the county "comply with laws requiring competitive awards of public works projects," and revise its policies.
County officials said they believed they were following the law when they added other, costly tasks to the no-bid contract. Facilities Management Director Kathy Brown said the county has stopped that practice, but might ask the Legislature to change the law to make such add-ons legal because it often makes sense to do less-urgent work at the same time an emergency project is done.
On the jail project, she said, bringing in a second contractor to do work ranging from infirmary remodeling to plumbing would have been "beyond impractical," because at the jail every worker's tools are carefully screened and accounted for each day.
Sims and the Metropolitan King County Council declared an emergency and kicked the Integrated Security Project into high gear in 2003 after a consultant inspected the jail's aging electronic security system and said it was "a virtual certainty that major systems will fail in the very near future" and could leave the jail "inoperable."
Work started in 2004 and is mostly complete; the remainder is to be finished by fall.
No one disputed the need for prompt action at the jail, which holds more than 1,000 prisoners. The security system controls doors, alarms, intercom and elevators.
"People think of a jail as minor offenses," Brown said. "That is absolutely not the case. The King County Jail holds pretrial felony detainees, some of whom are extremely dangerous individuals. It is absolutely unacceptable to have a security system in a jail like that fail."
After declaring an emergency, the county hired Turner Construction under a $213,000 contract to begin planning the work that needed to be done. A year later, the county awarded Turner a $14.2 million, no-bid contract to build the new security system.
Putting the contract up for bid would have delayed the project, threatened public safety and disrupted operation of the jail, county officials say.
The Auditor's Office remains unconvinced. "Typically, one year is sufficient time to solicit bids," it wrote.
Brown said county officials "certainly understand and respect the auditor's work" -- but disagree with his conclusion. "I believe the county did everything they possibly could to ensure the safety of the public and do it in a sound way that reflected absolute best business practices."
County Councilmember Larry Phillips, who supported the 2003 emergency declaration and initial funding for the security project, said it has succeeded in preventing jailbreaks.
But he is distressed by the rising cost. "Incrementally, this project over time kept growing and growing to the point where I stopped voting for it," he said. "I was not satisfied -- and am still not -- that this has been done well."
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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