by Bradley Parsons
Several members of the City Council said Tuesday they want construction on the new Duval County Courthouse stopped until they know definitively what the project will include and how much it will cost.
Mayor John Peyton’s Chief of Policy and Government Affairs Steve Diebenow gave the Council’s Finance Committee the mayor’s guarantee that the project would not exceed $232 million. However, Council Auditor Richard Wallace said the scope of the project would need to be defined.
“I’m not sure Canon [the project’s architect] or anybody else can tell me how much this will cost until they know what they’re building,” said Wallace. “Is it going to be 1.2 million feet, 1 million feet? Until they know that they’re just guesstimating.”
Until those specifics are uncovered, Council member Suzanne Jenkins again called for the project’s halt. However, because funding has already been approved, Assistant General Counsel Cindy Laquidara said the Council would be limited to issuing a resolution, recommending a course of action for the mayor to follow.
Council member Lake Ray urged the Council to approve such a resolution. Jerry Holland joined Ray, Vice President Elaine Brown, Jenkins and Glorious Johnson in calling for an audit. Brown said the Council should consider an outside audit from a private firm.
“Do we need an outside auditor? I know Richard [Wallace] does a great job but the information he gets is from [project manager] Jacobs [Facilities Inc.] I don’t know if that’s the fox loose among the hens, but we do have contracts signed and yet the project has gone from $162 million to $232 million,” said Brown.
One year after Canon’s design beat out three finalists, most of the Council members said they couldn’t yet tell constituents how big the courthouse would be. The original design called for 44 courtrooms, while the current plan seeks to save money by delaying construction on 10 of them.
Many of the questions were prompted by an inch-thick dossier detailing differences between the current promised design and the City’s original guidelines. The handouts were supplied by Tom Rensing, whose architecture firm, KBJ Architects, lost out to Canon in its bid to build the courthouse.
Jenkins introduced Rensing, who recommended that the City revisit its decision to use Canon. The other designs, his own firm’s included, offered the City the best chance to get the project back on schedule and hold down costs he said.
In calling for the project’s halt, several of the Council members said they wanted to leave room to explore cheaper designs. Holland told Diebenow that the Council’s earlier approval of $211 million for the courthouse did not guarantee its support for more funding.
“Don’t assume Council wrote you a blank check,” said Holland. “Don’t assume you have the votes to support $232 million.
“If somebody says we can do this for less, then why wouldn’t we stop and listen? It may not be this design, but I don’t know that taxpayers necessarily want that design.”
To make up the $21 million gap between the Better Jacksonville Plan funds approved by the Council and the current projected cost, Peyton plans to borrow about $16 million and take the remainder from a trust fund and a drainage fund. Wallace said Peyton will need Council approval to make that happen.
Diebenow said the administration welcomed a Council audit and said Lynn Westbrook, Peyton’s interim chief operating officer, would answer any questions. He said construction on the current plan’s foundation — seen as the point of no return by several of the Council members — would begin in six months to a year.