There is currently a fair amount of uncertainty about the leadership of Palomar College. At its 12/17 meeting, the Governing Board put college President Joi Blake on administrative leave, and few people outside of the trustees knows what that means. What is not uncertain, though, is that Palomar is facing important financial challenges, and it is worth considering how the lack of transparency has led to this situation. After all, only by understanding a problem can we hope to solve it, and one particularly instructive example is President Blake's office suite. The district’s $1 million estimate for this office was way off-base, as public records show that the actual costs are significantly higher than what we were led to believe.
In March 2019, the San Diego Union Tribune published the district's estimate for the construction of the president's office—including “furniture and other final expenses." This estimate put the cost of the office at “close to a million dollars.” This estimate also included "an allowance of $45,000 for unforeseen conditions or expenses."
The district provided the public with this estimate two months after construction had already begun. This was not just a "let's throw out a ballpark number" since major expenses—the construction contract, architectural drawings, and plan approval—were well established. The largest expense (construction costs) ended up 7.8% ($62K) above the original contracted amount.
The estimated time to finish the project was 7 months with a completion date of July 12, 2019. But, a year after starting construction, the project is still not finished and recently obtained public records reveal that the price tag is fast approaching $1.4 million. When completed, the office suite will likely be 40% to 45% over budget.
A 40% cost overrun is extreme, especially when the actual construction costs were only 7.8% over budget . This huge discrepancy should be examined since almost all of the cost overruns occurred outside of construction, architectural, and project management estimates. In fact, if you simply look at where the increases occurred, there was over a 700% increase in the estimates for the "other costs." For example, the district's estimate seems to have completely missed the boat on the $146,000 needed for inspections, the $84,000 needed for furniture, and the $96,000 spent on technology (computers, audio visual equipment, etc.). This is simply outrageous. Was there a purposeful low-balling of the project in order to quash objections? Were there other expensive add-ons that made the costs surge?
In addition to providing the public with an estimate which was far removed from the actual expenses, some of the expenses incurred for the presidential office suite were paid for with a purchase order assigned to the “athletics project.” This purchase order, in the amount of $226,100, was made out to HMC Architects for “project management support provided by the Barrie Company for the athletics project” [emphasis mine], but it actually contained $64,640 worth of expenses for the presidential office suite. What is more, only about 7% of the $226K actually went to the athletics complex. This information took a bit of forensic analysis to uncover, but HERE IS A LINK to the source documents used.
The presidential office suite continues to raise red flags. Why was there so much secrecy in the beginning? Why was this project not discussed with the trustees or the bond oversight committee until after it was exposed through public records requests? Why was the normal processes of informing and seeking board approval not followed? Why was the cost estimate provided to the public so far below the actual costs? Why are some of the costs incurred by this project being assigned to the athletics complex project?
Whatever the future holds for Palomar College, one thing is clear: we need much more transparency and forthrightness in terms of where, how, and why important financial decisions are made.
ITEMIZED LIST OF ALL EXPENSES THUS FAR
TOTAL COST TO DATE = $1,370,000
(Click on underlined words for links to source documents.)
Conan Construction ($859,271 ) - Originally bid at $797,000
Architectural (Inspections) ($136,061)
HMC Architects ($95,825)
WMK Office (Furniture) ($75,884)
Trace 3 (Information Tech.) ($58,662)
Lightwerks (Audio Visual) . ($30,884)
DSA (Plan Approval) . ($13,850)
Construction Testing & Inspections . ($9,700)
Dell & Apple Computers . ($5,204)
Solar Care (Window tinting) ($5,384)
Amerigroup (Outdoor Cameras) ($1,371)
Bergelectric (Electrical Contractor) ($1,292)