Durham council hires help for bond projects

Staff WriterSeptember 5, 2007 

— The city will pay a consultant $707,000 to help expedite its delivery of capital projects, after City Council members concluded Monday night that the potential cost savings justified the steep price tag.

Council members said that city staffers are overworked and undertrained, rendering them unable to build the $110 million slate of projects approved in the 2005 bond package without help.

That help will come in the form of experts sent by MWH Americas, an international company with an office in Charlotte.

Ten MWH employees will work in various capacities in Durham during the next six months, with two of them working full time during that time.

City Manager Patrick Baker said the city typically completes projects in three to five years -- less than desirable. The ever-rising cost of materials means every day a project is delayed costs money.

The additional staff will help in the short term, he said. Also, when MWH departs, its workers will leave behind a streamlined process that has proven successful in other cities.

The process could save millions if implemented effectively, Baker said, adding that he has put his "personal reputation on the line" in his pledge to complete all of the 80-plus projects that are part of the 2005 bond.

"Getting this done for the taxpayers is what keeps me up at night," Baker said.

Six of the seven council members were swayed, with only Howard Clement III voting "nay." At a recent work session, several council members expressed skepticism about spending that much money on a consultant.

"I've already called the '05 bonds 'The Incredible Shrinking Bonds,' " council member Mike Woodard said. "If we don't approve this they're going to shrink even more. We have good people working in a bad system. And I hope this project is going to move us down the road quickly to improve our system."

Clement didn't buy it, saying it wasn't made clear exactly how MWH would change the system and save millions, as promised.

"How were we making it before?" Clement asked, referring to how bond projects currently are designed, contracted out and built. "Were we just kidding ourselves, we weren't making it, and these folks coming out of the blue charging $700,000 are going to solve all of our programmatic issues?"

Michael Musgrove, a project executive for MWH, said the company has a tested method that includes eliminating unnecessary steps.

It also includes training in how to change the mind-set of city staff to help each member see how they fit into the whole of the project, a concept Musgrove conceded was a bit "touchy-feely."

But he said the proof is in MWH's portfolio, pointing to the work the company did in Kansas City that now is famous in city government circles.

The company was paid $15 million over three years to clear a massive backlog of capital projects in Kansas City. The city went from averaging 36 months to complete a project to 18 months.

"It's not like we're making this up," Musgrove said. "It works."

Staff writer Matt Dees can be reached at 956-2433 or matt.dees@newsobserver.com.

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