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$340 Million and Rising: Major league projects like the new City Hall might be procurred under proposed scheme.

'Trust Us'

Six weeks after Furnituregate, city government seeks to loosen taxpayer safeguards

By William Dean Hinton

You would think San Jose city officials would give themselves time to rebuild the public's trust six weeks after Furnituregate, the well-publicized controversy involving $45 million in furniture administrators neglected to forecast for the new civic center.

You would, of course, be wrong. Mayor Ron Gonzales's office is asking voters Tuesday to approve an initiative, Measure D, allowing councilmembers to select the architect and contractor for civic projects costing more than $5 million. Typically such projects are put out to bid, with the lowest estimate winning the contract. Low-bid procurement is one of the methods safeguarding the public against cronyism and corruption.

The low-bid concept is not perfect. Cost overruns are often caused by contractors changing things once construction is under way. And common sense might tell you the lowest bidder is not always the most qualified to perform a job. "You wouldn't want the lowest-bid doctor to operate on you," says San Jose communications director David Vossbrink, who says Measure D was formulated in November, months before Furnituregate.

In a position paper presented with the Measure D ballot, Mayor Gonzales argued that the new process, called design-build, will guarantee taxpayers a completion date and fixed price. Design-build projects will only be awarded "if the city finds it will save money and time."

The city, obviously, is still run by the same people who hit taxpayers with the additional $45 million furniture bill for the now-under-construction civic center several years after voters were told the building's final price tag would cost about $340 million.

Officials expect voters to trust them even though the city has yet to formalize the criteria for selecting a firm through the design-build process. What will prevent councilmembers from handing multimillion-dollar projects to political allies? "Certainly that potential is there," says Bobbi Fishler of the League of Women Voters, which opposes Measure D.

Vossbrink says the city routinely hands out millions in contracts each year--with no allegations of cronyism--to architects, engineers, accountants, attorneys and other professionals not forced to go through the low-bid process.

The city certainly needs to find some way to curb cost overruns. The HP Pavillion ran $47 million over budget. The Repertory Theater ran nearly $16 million--double its original price tag. A parking garage on Fourth Street was $26 million over budget. The Tech Museum, Convention Center and new civic center were all millions over budget projections.

But the city has offered no supporting analysis why design-build is needed, other than to list cities that have benefited from the process. It would be more persuasive if the mayor's office researched why San Jose projects have run over, and how design-build would save money.

Such a step might instigate a new round of finger-pointing, or it might instill renewed confidence in City Hall.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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