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City Hall Redevelopment Limps To Finish Line With Headaches

At Monday’s Falls Church City Council meeting, Council members Ross Litkenhous and Letty Hardi (right) were two “no” votes on the measure to supplement City Hall renovations funds with another $350,000. City Attorney Carol McKoskrie and City Manager Wyatt Shields are at the left. (Photo: News-Press)

After expressions of smooth sailing and copacetic vibes in voting a unanimous “first reading” preliminary approval for the coming fiscal year City of Falls Church budget, the City Council subsequently ran afoul of some heartburn at its meeting Monday night. With a budget coming in at just under $100 million with no tax rate increase despite major projects, the Council is now compelled to cough up an extra $350,000 for last minute “change orders” to complete the $13.35 million City Hall renovation.

The funds, according to City Manager Wyatt Shields, are technically for work already being done, due to the effort to minimize delays in the completion of the year-long project, even as the Council also had to vote to spend an extra $27,000 on rent at its temporary 400 N. Washington digs due to delays that will keep it there until close to the end of April, almost three months after the work was supposed to be done.

The City’s public works director Mike Whitfield told the Council that a dispute with the principal contractor for the project, Hitt Construction (not affiliated with recently sentenced felon Todd Hitt, though related) led to a move by the City to retain a different contractor, LV Comm-Sec, to complete work that, according to Whitfield, Hitt has contended was not in its contract to perform.

While the City continues to review the contract with its architect and Hitt, the “construction managers at risk,” according to City Attorney Carol McCoskrie, work has commenced to install a necessary public safety infrastructure, including the installation of conduit and junction boxes for lock control, garage doors and security cameras. It was subsequently also found that portions of the necessary conduit for voice and data low voltage systems throughout City Hall were not included in the original plans.

In order to avoid delay claims against the City, the work was approved to correct these problems by Shields, administratively, and is substantially complete, according to a staff report to the Council.

The cost of the rectifications was $166,000 for one portion and $70,000 for another, and other change orders on the contract to date totalled $295,230.
The Council approved an expenditure of up to $350,000 for this, to include a cushion that Council member Dan Sze staunchly advocated as one experienced in the realities of construction projects.

It is expected, according to the staff report, that a budget amendment will be sought in May to use “anticipated underspending in the current operating budget to cover the added expense of this contract modification.” But McCoskie told the Council Monday she hoped the money would be recovered through the negotiating process with Hitt, instead.

Council member Ross Litkenhous expressed “the general level of frustration shared by everyone,” and joined Council member Letty Hardi in voting against authorizing the money. Sze, on the other hand, said, “I am not willing to invest emotions on this,” while arguing for extra contingency money.

The current plan is to begin moving into the renovated City Hall around the third week of April, and to have almost everything moved by the end of the month. Hope was expressed that the final vote on the Fiscal Year 2020 budget would be held in the new Council chambers at the new City Hall on April 22.

As for that budget, the Council voted 7-0 to approve a preliminary approval with no tax rate changes. Mayor David Tarter hailed the “unprecedented cooperation,” including with the School Board, that went into it, saying, “I am excited about this coming year.”

Shields noted that not only is there no change in the tax rates in this budget, despite heavy expenditures in the new high school and renovations of City Hall, the library and more, but that tax rates are not expected to rise going forward, either. The debt service component of this year’s $99.3 million operating budget is rising by 46 percent to $13.4 million to cover the costs of the new construction, and other major parameters include $40.2 million for general government expenditures, $43.3 million for a transfer to the City schools and $1.8 million for the City’s annual contribution to WMATA. Added funding for enhanced tax relief and deferral programs for the elderly and disabled is also included.

Councilman Phil Duncan noted that it “compensates the employees and provides new facilities.” Councilman David Snyder said, “This budget does what local government is supposed to do,” and Councilman Sze chimed in, “This is a very good budget,” though he cautioned that “constraints are coming” with an expected slowdown in the wider economy.

Council member Hardi echoed that concern, saying, “I am happy with where we are. We’re investing in people and in our future and the process has been way more pleasant.” But she added, “We’re not going to have it this good next year,” and spoke to the need to do more about affordable housing.

The Council took under advisement the request from the City’s Voter Registrar David Bjerke to increase the salary for a deputy registrar from part to full time, given the added tasks associated with the significant population growth the City has experienced. The ask was for about another $40,000 for the position in an office that depends on a heavy contribution of volunteer help by members of the Electoral Board to function.