Council Barely OKs $1.207M Cost Overrun on City Hall Project

FALLS CHURCH City Manager Wyatt Shields (right) took responsibility for the problems that led to the $1.207 million in change orders on the City Hall project before the Council voted 4-1-2 to OK the expenditure Monday. (Photo: News-Press)

In a vote with the narrowest possible margin for approval, the Falls Church City Council Monday night scraped together a four “yes” vote majority to approve the expenditure of an additional $1.207 million to finally complete by mid-May what’s wound up being a $20.3 million project over the last decade for the renovation and expansion of City Hall.

This was the second such close vote this month, coming after the Mary Riley Styles library renovation project was OK’d two weeks ago by a similar margin.

Council member Letty Hardi voted “no” and her colleagues Ross Litkenhous and David Snyder abstained to reduce the margin of approval to four for OKing what is essentially money already spent to finish the project, the final $1.207 million coming on an agreement between the City and Hitt Construction.

In a bold move, City Manager Wyatt Shields told the Council just before the vote was taken Monday that he accepts personal responsibility for the problems that led to the need for the City to cough up the additional $1,207 million, confessing that as the person overseeing the project manager on the effort, he was ultimately responsible.

“The plans were not as fully vetted in advance as they should have been,” he said, leading to a “long list of change orders on the need for IT networking capability, low voltage security, the sally port in the garage and masonry mold in the 70-year-old original building.

Hitt “absorbed costs as well,” Shields said. While the official cost of the project grew by the $1,207 million to $14,557,800, when the 10 years of preparation, staff time, rent for the temporary location while the renovation work was being done and moving and storage costs were added in, the price tag came to $20.3 million, Shields reported.

“We need to know the lessons learned from this,” Snyder said, and “be sure we have the proper oversight going forward.” Mayor David Tarter added, “We have to be very smart with our money. I hate to see this, but the past is the past.”

The $1.207 million will come from the surplus in the current fiscal year budget which totaled $3.178 million, leaving $1,971,000 of that surplus the Council voted to return to the City’s capital reserve fund. The surplus was the result of underspending and favorable interest rates compared to forecasts for the current Fiscal Year 2020 budget and also a delay by a year in the first projected debt service payment on the $124 million school construction bond.

In the context of this issue, the Council voted unanimously to create an oversight committee to watch the progress of the Mary Riley Styles Library renovation and expansion, which is set to commence in two weeks.

Meanwhile, the City Council’s scheduled work session this Monday was cancelled in part because the presentation of the Planning Division’s West End Small Area Development Plan was pushed up to last Monday.

That was for the purpose of allowing Council members to participate with their counterparts in Arlington and Alexandria in a joint discussion on the future of the regional Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria. According to Shields, the center has been underutilized in recent years, even while Falls Church and the other participating jurisdictions pay their proportional shares to keep it functioning.

Monday’s proposed meeting, which has yet to be finalized, would be to discuss possible alternative uses of the center, including proposals for merging the program with Fairfax County’s. As of press time, however, the meeting had not yet been formally set.

The Council heard at Monday’s meeting from Chuck Bean, the executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and from Joshua Shokoor, the chair of the City’s Housing Commission, both focused on the issue of the fast-developing affordable housing crisis.

Bean, who praised the City of Falls Church for “punching way above its weight class” in the regional organization, noted the recent COG study showing that economic development and employment trends among the region’s 5.7 million residents indicate the need for 320,000 new housing units by 2030, a number 70,000 higher than has been forecast.

He noted the study’s conclusion that 75 percent of the new units will need to be affordable to low and middle income families, something that has not yet been seriously addressed by anyone.

On top of that, in his commission’s annual report to the Council, Shokoor noted that the City’s stock of affordable housing is rapidly vanishing, with identified affordable units here down from 471 to 287 in the last seven years, and expected to decline by another 120 in the next eight years.

In that context, it was noted that the City’s Affordable Housing Fund, which had about $500,000 a decade ago (capable of being leveraged for $2 million for an senior affordable living building then that was voted down by that Council), has been totally depleted with, at best, suggestions for a modest infusion of funds in the coming fiscal year budget.

The Founders Row mixed-use project now under construction at the corner of West Broad and North West Streets will include 23 affordable units, according to Shokoor.