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Washington Jail Remodel Violated State Law, at a Cost of $51.6 million

King County, Washington officials violated state law by failing to get competitive bids on a security upgrade project at the King County Correctional Facility, according to a March 12, 2008 state audit. Originally slated at $14.2 million, the cost of the project has skyrocketed to $51.6 million.

A nationally recognized security expert inspected the jail’s aging electronic security system and concluded that it was “a virtual certainty that major systems will fail in the near future,” leaving the jail “inoperable.” Based on this assessment, in April 2003 the County Council declared an emergency and hired Turner Construction under a $213,437 contract to begin planning the security upgrade. The Council waived competitive bid requirements due to the emergency.

Over one year later, in September 2004, the County awarded Turner a $14.2 million no-bid contract to complete the project. County officials claimed that putting the project up for bid would have delayed its completion, threatening public safety and disrupting jail operations. State auditors disagreed, however, finding that “typically, one year is sufficient time to solicit bids.”

“Since the execution of the construction contract, the County has authorized 28 change orders,” which added tens of millions of dollars to the original contract price. County Council member Larry Phillips supported the 2003 emergency declaration and initial funding, but is now distressed by the soaring costs. “Incrementally, this project over time kept 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.”

Many of the contract changes had nothing to do with upgrading the jail’s security system; rather, they included remodeling the booking area, pharmacy, infirmary and administrative offices, replacing a shower, and upgrading a fire alarm system. “The cost of the work outside the security project was approximately $14.5 million,” auditors found. “The County claimed exemption from competitive bid laws for ‘special market conditions.’”

County officials defended the contract changes, arguing it would have been “beyond impractical” to bring in a second contractor for remodeling projects. Officials claimed they were following the law but have since stopped the change order practice, stated Facilities Management Director Kathy Brown. She suggested, however, that the County may seek a legislative change because it often makes sense to do less urgent work during an emergency project.

County officials “certainly understand and respect the auditor’s work,” said Brown. But they disagreed 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.” The auditor recommended that “the County comply with laws requiring competitive awards of public works projects, including revising its own policies to be consistent with state law.”

In an unrelated audit also released on March 12, 2008, state auditors found that offenders posting bail by fraudulent credit card transactions had deprived the King County District Court of $30,000. “The Court did not have adequate procedures for refunds associated with credit card transactions,” auditors found. In yet another audit, it was determined that inadequate controls of petty cash held by the King County Public Health Department resulted in a loss of $9,166.25.

Even after the security upgrades at the King County Correctional Facility are completed, the jail still faces an overcrowding problem and is anticipated to stop accepting misdemeanor arrestees from neighboring cities by 2012.

Sources: The Seattle Times; Schedule of Audit Findings and Responses, Washington State Auditor’s Office, King County (March 12, 2008)

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