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Wednesday, 24 February 2010 17:50

County and architect cross wires on library fee

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Last week a confused set of Jackson County commissioners learned their new library may cost more money than they thought, but County Manager Ken Westmoreland said the administrative mix-up won’t result in a higher price tag than the one originally agreed upon.

“I think I’ve got the situation unraveled now,” Westmoreland said Monday.

When the scope of work for the library changed midway through the project, McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture wanted a higher fee. While the firm failed to secure a signed contract from the county, commissioners did grant verbal approval, but forgot they had done so.

The library was originally planned as a brand new building located near Jackson Plaza, but community advocates later convinced the county to build the library adjacent to the historic courthouse downtown, and renovate the historic courthouse in the process.

According to Westmoreland, the original contract between McMillan Smith and the county awarded the architects 7.5 percent of the total project cost. But in October 2007, after the project was shifted to the courthouse hill, the architects asked for 8 percent. Renovations generally involve more work for architects and demand a higher fee by percentage. Architects also faced new site constraints and the challenge of blending a new building with the old one.

The county board voted to adopt the new billing rate, and the project went forward. But the architects never submitted a new written contract for the county to sign. As a result, the county’s finance department never got confirmation of the new rate.

County Finance Director Darlene Fox continued to pay at the contractually agreed upon rate of 7.5 percent. When the architecture firm completed a merger with another company, its accountants notified Westmoreland of the error last October.

“I think when they merged their books, that may have been when they discovered they were paying the different rate,” Westmoreland said.

At last week’s commissioner meeting, Westmoreland knew of the error, but he couldn’t explain why the county never got the updated contract.

Commissioner Tom Massie said that if the error wasn’t the county’s, the county should discuss the possibility of “splitting the difference” with the architecture firm. The board directed Westmoreland to get to the bottom of the confusion.

That’s when Westmoreland uncovered records from an old meeting when the board voted to approve the new rate. Westmoreland said the county was bound to honor the agreement and pay the correct rate for work on the project.

“I didn’t have a contract saying 8 percent and finance didn’t have a contract for 8 percent, but the bottom line is the board approved 8 percent and that’s what we obligated ourselves to,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland said the board will not have to vote again on the contract, and the county will pay McMillan Pazdan Smith at 8 percent for the work. According to the finance department, the project’s total price tag is $6,667,169 and the half percent adjustment on the fee will amount to $30,335.85.

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