After hearing from an auditor who said he found no irregularities, the Oak Ridge City Council voted 6-1 on Monday to end a financial review of the $281,000 project to build bathrooms and changing rooms in the structure that once housed the New China Palace Restaurant at the Oak Ridge Marina.
The audit had been requested by Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson, who said there was an allegation at the last Council meeting that there was some problem.
“When you get in front of a camera and you allege that something bad is going on…” Watson said, then you need to hear from a third party.
Questions have been raised about the building renovation by Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn, who pointed out that she wasn’t the first to raise concerns, and former City Council member Anne Garcia Garland, among others. Most of the questions and criticisms have focused on the cost. A few different numbers have been reported about what the project was initially expected to cost and what it ended up costing. The 2014 budget showed it had a projected cost of $75,000, Baughn said.
But auditor Adam Allen, a principal of Coulter and Justus, told Council members during a special report on Monday that the renovation cost about $281,000. About half of that was labor, and another 50 percent was materials, Allen said. The audit found no irregularities.
City employee Pat Fallon estimated in April 2014, after construction had started, that the project could cost about $175,000. Since then, he has suggested that that estimate was relatively close. On Monday, Fallon, who is operations and maintenance manager for the Oak Ridge Public Works Department, said materials cost about $140,000.
There were additional expenses for city staff time. Most of the work was done in-house by Public Works employees, although some tasks such as plumbing were contracted out.
Hiring a contractor to do the building renovation could have cost an estimated $460,000, Fallon said.
Among the work that had to be done were removing asbestos tiles and a grease trap, and installing a new water line. When Oak Ridge Today toured the building during construction in April 2014, city workers were building a block wall, patching the ceiling, and hanging drywall.
Some have maintained that it shouldn’t cost so much to build bathrooms.
“$280,000 for a cinder-block bathroom is ridiculous,” said Baughn, who cast the only vote against ending the audit by Coulter and Justus.
Other Council members were apparently satisfied with what they had heard from the auditors or ready to move on.
“There were no irregularities,” City Council member Charlie Hensley said. “To me, that’s the end of the story.”
Council members raised questions about how much it might cost for more work by Coulter and Justus, if they responded to Baughn’s requests, and who was paying for the firm’s work now.
“I don’t think we need additional work on this,” said Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Smith.
“The issue is closed, and we’d like to move on,” Council member Kelly Callison said. There was some unexpected work that had to be done, including to the sewer and drainage systems, Callison said.
“The public has been very supportive,” he said of the new bathrooms, which have been on a city wish list for years, especially in the rowing and recreation communities.
But Baughn, who continued to have questions about project contracts and an apparently unfulfilled public records request, among other things, said citizens have a right to know how money is spent.
“They are legally entitled to answers,” said Baughn, who objected to the suggestion that she might be “grandstanding.” She said the city doesn’t need to incur additional costs, but she wants Watson to comply with a public records request for project documents.
Interim Public Works Director Jack Suggs said the city has received a records request for all invoices, time, and bills related to the building renovation, and the documents should be available in a few weeks through the City Clerk’s Office.
“We are responding to the public records request,” Suggs said.
He said the auditor found no significant problems in the areas checked by Coulter and Justus, which included looking for collusion or favoritism.
When the bathroom renovation started, one section of the former New China Palace had already been converted into a rental shop for kayaks and bikes.
The public restrooms and changing rooms for big events were added in another part of the city-owned building.
It’s one of the steps in implementing a waterfront development plan approved by Oak Ridge City Council in December 2009. That plan included such features as a new picnic pavilion, walking trails, new playground, permanent restrooms, enhanced lighting and landscaping, outdoor casual dining, and recreational equipment rental.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Copyright 2015 Oak Ridge Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.