Watchdog

You gave Boise Fire $17 million. But the city misjudged costs, and the money’s gone.

Watch this time-lapse of the Boise fire training center being built

Drone video shows the Boise fire training center being built from May 2017 to April 2018.
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Drone video shows the Boise fire training center being built from May 2017 to April 2018.

The city of Boise expects to spend twice as much on five Fire Department projects as it told voters four years ago in the run-up to a bond election.

Boise also expects those projects to take far longer to complete that the original two-year schedule.

The overruns are due partly to rising demand for construction crews and materials — factors that have driven up costs and slowed both private and government projects across the Treasure Valley the last few years.

But city leaders admit a bigger factor was their miscalculation of both money and time. They say they’ve learned their lesson. And they’re getting the projects — and others — built anyway, by tapping rising property-tax revenues.

What happened?

On Nov. 4, 2014, Boise voters handed Bieter a major victory. A year after defeating two bond measures he had backed for the fire projects and open-space preservation, they approved a single $17 million bond to relocate, rebuild or renovate four fire stations and build a new firefighter training center.

It wasn’t just the victory that impressed Bieter. It was the margin: More than 75 percent of voters supported the bond, which required a two-thirds majority to pass.

“That’s a number that I really never dreamed of,” Bieter told the Idaho Statesman the day after the election.

He said the bond result, combined with the election of two candidates he supported to the Ada County Highway District, made it his best day in politics since winning his first term as mayor in 2003.

Reality quickly set in.

“It became clear by the summer of 2015 that the early estimates for these (projects) were overly optimistic,” city spokesman Mike Journee said.

The Fire Department’s original schedule was too aggressive as well, Fire Chief Dennis Doan said. The schedule called for the completion of all five projects by March 2018. Now, they’re expected to be under construction until 2022.

Those additional five years have only added to the anticipated cost.

Instead of $17 million, the city now estimates the five projects will cost more than $34 million. Jade Riley, Bieter’s chief of staff, said that estimate assumes the the highest-cost option for the remaining projects.

Why were the estimates wrong?

Riley said City Hall didn’t do enough research on the projects to come up with accurate cost estimates. Instead, city staffers and a contractor, Insight Architects, made cursory projections based on limited information about the construction costs.

More importantly, they misjudged the scope of some projects. For example, the city originally believed a remodel, at $1.2 million, would suffice for Fire Station 9, located at 3101 Sycamore Drive, just off State Street next to the Collister Center. Now, officials believe a total rebuild, at $4.9 million, will be a better long-term investment.

Some of the city’s data turned out to be flawed, too. Officials used the $2.4 million price tag on Fire Station 15, located in Harris Ranch, as a benchmark for new stations’ cost.

The problem was that Fire Station 15 was built in 2012 — when construction costs had bottomed out after the Great Recession. Five years later, in a superheated construction market, subcontractors’ bids reflected soaring costs of both labor and materials. The cost to rebuild Station 8, 3575 W. Overland Road, was $5.1 million. For Fire Station 4, 8485 W. Ustick Road, it was $5 million.

In some cases, Doan said, the city received no bids on items like carpeting.

How has the city responded?

The bond money is gone. It was exhausted before the city built the firefighter training center, which opened this spring near the city’s West Boise sewer plant on Joplin Road north of Chinden Boulevard.

Originally estimated at $6.8 million, the center’s final cost was $11.6 million. To pay for it, the City Council took money from Boise’s capital fund, an account to set aside some property-tax revenue for unexpected costs and major projects.

The city maintains a $3 million minimum balance in the capital fund, Riley said. The amount of money left in the account at the end of the last several fiscal years has fluctuated between $3.4 million and $15.3 million.

Boise also has allocated $4.1 million from next year’s budget for Station 9, and it will need another infusion for Station 5, 212 South 16th Street, now estimated at $7.9 million. These are a few of the costs that have driven up city spending — and property taxes — by more than $30 million over the past five years.

The fire projects’ cost overruns forced Boise to change the way it estimates the costs of major projects, Riley said. Instead of the superficial process it employed leading up to the 2014 bond election, it now spends more time and money researching each job and presenting options to the public before allocating money.

This policy change applies to everything from new parks to the main library Boise is trying to build on the southern edge of Downtown.

How has this affected other projects?

A major benefit of the 2014 bond was that it freed money for other departments’ projects, such as the construction of a library branch in Bown Crossing library — $8.9 million — and a stretch of the Boise River Greenbelt between Garden City and Americana Boulevard — $3.5 million.

The fire projects’ overruns have delayed some projects, including hoped-for renovations of the South Pool and Lowell Pool complexes, Riley said. The city has no cost estimates for the pool projects, Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.

But most projects have stayed on schedule, Riley said. That schedule, however, is slower than it was, partly because Boise has limited personnel to manage the projects, and partly because of the city’s new, more deliberate process for estimating costs.

The main library is a prime example. A new building to replace the retrofitted 1940s-era warehouse has been on Boise’s wish list for more than 15 years. Before hiring world-famous architect Moshe Safdie to design the new building, the city spent five years working with consultants. Their advice led to the decision to tear down the old building and put up a new one — for $80 million or more — instead of remodeling the existing building for around $50 million.

Are we better off because of the bond?

The fire projects have improved public safety, said Doan, the fire chief.

Station 8’s response times have improved by an average 33 seconds since it moved one-half mile east on Overland Road, Doan said. Those seconds matter if you’ve had a heart attack or can’t breathe.

Station 4 in West Boise now houses a ladder truck, a piece of equipment that’s deployed to all structure fires and whose crew specializes in activities like car extractions and forced entries into houses. Ladder truck response times in that area have improved by an average of 1 minute, 45 seconds, Doan said.

And the firefighter training center has upgraded the department’s ability to train recruits and veterans alike. Unlike the old tower between Shoreline Drive and the Boise River, it allows firefighters to train in live-fire scenarios. That’s made them better at their jobs and safer, Doan said. In the old days, the department had to wait until the owners of old buildings they wanted demolished donated them for live-fire exercises. That only happened about once a year, Doan said.

“We’ve graduated recruit academies before without ever having live-fire training,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder how we were so good before.”

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