AP Exclusive: Amid cuts, new Iowa building gets pricey redo

AP News
Posted: Apr 24, 2017 12:57 PM
AP Exclusive: Amid cuts, new Iowa building gets pricey redo

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A plan to spend nearly a half-million dollars remodeling the interior of the newest state office building in Des Moines is moving ahead despite budget cuts that are slicing an array of state programs and services, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

The Iowa Utilities Board is planning to demolish and redo much of the customer service area in its award-winning, six-year-old building. Planning documents obtained under the open records law call for extensive renovations, including new glass walls and doors, ceilings, woodwork, paint and even a 75-inch Samsung television. A transaction counter and information kiosk would be demolished and replaced with a customer greeting desk. Conference rooms would be added.

The two-story, $10 million building is considered among the nicest in the Capitol Complex, where many date to the 1970s or earlier. It opened in 2011 to much fanfare on the site of a former landfill, winning praise for its energy-efficiency and elegant design.

As lawmakers finished a $7.2 billion budget that cuts everything from crime victims' services to childhood obesity prevention, state officials met Thursday with companies interested in bidding on construction, glazing, mechanical and electrical work. Bids are due May 3.

The board is using $330,000 left over from its 2016 budget and a $250,000 appropriation that lawmakers approved last year to fund the project, a priority of Chairwoman Geri Huser. It has spent $91,000 on design and bid documents, including 130 pages of specifications by BNIM Architects detailing everything from new interior finishes to light fixtures. The budget is currently $464,000.

The project comes as Huser faces questions about her extensive outside work as a private attorney, revealed this month by AP. The Senate recently voted 44-4 to confirm Huser for a second two-year term as chairwoman, despite a law that requires the board's three members to devote their "whole time" to state duties. Huser says she's been working full-time even as she's been awarded more than $177,000 in legal fees.

The notice to bidders says the project "consists primarily of interior remodel work" but state documents do not make clear why it's necessary.

Board spokesman Don Tormey said the changes will give the public more space to meet privately with staff to discuss complaints against utilities or comment on cases, sit down to research docket files and review consumer information such as brochures. The 75-inch television will replace a projector used for presentations in the conference room, Tormey said.

Asked why the project wasn't delayed or scaled back, he said the board "has the funding and is following the process" for renovations established by the Department of Administrative Services.

Lawmakers could block the project and reroute the money to fund other programs facing cutbacks but said they have no plans to do so.

Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, who was on a subcommittee that approved the renovation project money, was surprised to learn from AP last week that the funding hadn't already been spent.

Guth said Huser's request would not have earned support this year, when lawmakers have delayed "anything that's not super essential" due to lower-than-expected revenues. But he said the board made a legitimate case at a time when the budget had ample funding and should be able to finish the project.

"It's not like I'm going to take away money that they've already begun a process with," he said, even though lawmakers have cut millions from universities and other agencies mid-year.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Cedar Rapids, said the building appeared to have "a great amount of space" for customer service when she went on a recent tour that highlighted its state-of-the-art energy features. She questioned the spending given that "our budget is in trouble" and other buildings are in far worse shape.

"There are other buildings where people are having issues with even breathing the air and we're not addressing those," she said. "I find it kind of interesting they'd be wanting to do upgrades already."

The building houses 60 board employees and 16 who work for the Office of Consumer Advocate, which will not be affected by the project. That's about 15 fewer than when the building opened, due mostly to unfilled vacancies.

The plan calls for contracts to be awarded next month and work to begin in July, when four employees are expected to be temporarily displaced until a completion date of Oct. 30.