Doubters question adequacy, cost of Statehouse compromise

Capitol Commission will figure out how much new plan will save, if anything

Idaho StatesmanJanuary 31, 2007 

The standoff on Statehouse expansion and the compromise forged by Gov. Butch Otter and Republican leaders "most likely" will keep the Legislature out of the Capitol for an extra year, says the manager of the renovation project.

That's exactly what Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes and others did not want to happen.

What's more, state officials still haven't determined how much the new, scaled-back expansion will cost — or even whether it will save any money.

Otter and the lawmakers agreed Friday to build one-story instead of two-story underground wings on the east and west sides of the Statehouse. But work has been stopped since Otter ordered a halt early this month.

The delay could mean the Legislature would spend the 2008, 2009 and 2010 sessions in cramped, temporary quarters of the old Ada County Courthouse. And construction costs could continue to rise until the project is done.

"We don't know that for sure, but we want to raise that issue," Jan Frew, the renovation's project manager, told the Idaho Capitol Commission on Tuesday.

"It's important to put on the table that all of these changes may save us nothing," said Andrew Estad, a Boise architect who serves on the commission. "I'm hopeful that is not the case."

Otter was in Bonners Ferry on Tuesday, but his spokesman, Jon Hanian, said the governor is convinced the smaller wings will cost less.

"Someone needs to explain how not building half of what they proposed is not going to save money," he said.

The Capitol Commission wants to know by its next meeting on Feb. 28 how much the state has spent already, how much was wasted on the old plans, and how much the costs could increase if the project's completion is delayed by a year.

"I think this commission is dedicated to doing that and has to do that — because I don't see anybody else doing that right now," said retired Gen. Jack Kane, the commission's chairman. "Every day we delay is money. We've got to get a handle on it and move forward."

Lawmakers decided last year — after several years of debates and discussions — to build two-story wings below the east and west lawns of the Statehouse. Otter came out against $40 million wings during the election campaign. Soon after a fence was erected around the construction site this month, Otter ordered all work stopped.

During two weeks of closed-door discussions, Otter and Republican legislative leaders agreed to cut the size of the wings in half by eliminating one underground story. They also agreed to devote more of the Statehouse to legislative needs, which could shift some of Otter's staff and workers for other state officials out of the Capitol altogether.

Otter lifted his stop-work order when the compromise was announced Friday. The Statehouse grounds are still quiet, though, because the plans need to be dramatically reworked.

One-story wings will require a different kind of foundation, Frew explained Tuesday, and the change in plans could require a new construction process. Meanwhile, the interior design of both the wings and at least a couple of the Statehouse floors will have to be reworked.

When Otter stopped work, 80 percent of the wings' design was finished, Frew said. A schedule for bids had been written.

Now, the "plans will start over," she said.

"We're well into the middle of the river," Erstad said. "So we'll have to back out of the river and cross it again."

A shaky compromise

Though the fight had been between the Legislature and the governor, the Capitol Commission is legally in charge of the project. Most of its members are appointed by the governor — though Otter hasn't made any changes — and it is staffed by the Department of Administration.

Even with all the questions, the Capitol Commission endorsed the compromise laid out by Keith Johnson, Otter's administration director. Among the key points:

• The wings will be one story each and provide 50,000 square feet of hearing rooms.

• The first floor of the Statehouse will be devoted to the Legislature (it's shared among several offices now).

• Money saved will be spent on the old Ada County Courthouse, and the advisory board that oversees all state building projects will move the Borah Post Office up on its priority list.

"We think, going forward, this is a reasonable compromise," Johnson said.

Still, it was clear not everything was worked out. The treasurer's office has a vault built into the first floor, and Johnson told the commission it would likely stay there.

Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz disagreed. "The vault is a bit of an issue," he said.

Meanwhile, the majority of lawmakers weren't privy to the discussions that led to the compromise. A couple of legislators spoke to the commission Tuesday.

"I have not seen any financial due diligence of what this compromise brings," said Twin Falls Republican Sen. Chuck Coiner. "I just think it's important that we know, before we continue on, what the costs of redoing things are."

Coiner said he was afraid the compromise "might work politically but doesn't work in reality."

Boise GOP Sen. John Andreason stood to talk, too, pointing out the string of compromises evidenced elsewhere in the Capitol Mall. The Len B. Jordan Building is three stories, not the five it was designed for, he said. The parking garage nearby is three stories and not five. The Pete T. Cenarrusa Building — still called "The Towers" by state workers — is just one tower.

"Consequently, a great deal of money is spent on rental property," he said.

In fact, Idaho spends $13 million a year renting more than 900,000 square feet of office space in Ada County alone. That would almost fill five copies of the new Downtown Banner Bank building.

Some lawmakers think the Borah Post Office and the old Ada County Courthouse could quickly be filled by state workers.

Contact reporter Gregory Hahn at ghahn@idahostatesman.com or 377-6425.

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