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Construction manager voices concern over VHS project’s contingency budget

The Vashon Island School District’s construction manager told the school board Thursday night that he’s worried about the size of the contingency budget for the Vashon High School building project.

The contingency budget — a pool of money meant to cover unforeseen expenses during the new school’s construction — started out at $874,600. Now, with a lot of work still ahead, nearly half of it has already been used, said Steve Nicholas, a senior project manager at Heery International.

“Quite frankly, it’s not good where it’s at,” he told the board.

The board might have to consider cost-cutting measures in the weeks and months ahead to rebuild the contingency, he added.

“You may have make some hard decisions,” he told the board.

In an interview after the meeting, however, Nicholas sounded a different note, saying it was his job to be conservative and voice concern to ensure the project doesn’t go over budget.

“You can never have too much contingency,” he said. “You just don’t know what’s on the horizon.”

Heery’s role, he said, “is to mitigate risks to the owner.” But he didn’t mean to scare the board, he said. “There’s adequate contingency to complete this project.”

Michael Soltman, the district’s superintendent, said he, too, is not worried about an insufficient contingency budget. Nicholas’ job is to “bring this thing in on time and on budget,” Soltman added.

“He’s hammering the team right now, appropriately — because that’s his job,” he said.

Contingency budgets often get depleted in the early stages of a project when the groundwork takes place, since project managers can’t know what they’ll face after they start to dig, said Eric Gill, capital projects manager for the school district. In Vashon’s case, construction workers discovered underground utilities where they weren’t expecting to find them, forcing the team to rethink some elements of the design, he said.

Like Soltman, he said he remains confident the $47.7 million project will come in on budget. “I’m confident that we’re going to be OK,” he said.

Meanwhile, the team continues to struggle with bids coming in higher than expected. The bid for casework, for instance — the various built-in shelves, counters and desks the school needs — came in nearly 50 percent over what the team had budgeted, according to officials at Thursday night’s meeting. Skanska, the project manager, plans to repackage the bid and work with contractors to get a new set of bids more in line with the project’s budget.

At issue with the bids, according to Nicholas, is what he called “the Island factor” — the extra costs and risks of working on Vashon. What’s more, as the region climbs out of the recession, contractors are getting busier, making bids harder to come by, he said.

“We’re in a bidding climate that’s not perfect,” Nicholas added.

But there, too, Soltman and others helming the project are optimistic they’ll be able to navigate the situation. The board might have to opt for less expensive elements in the months ahead to contain costs.

“We did some upgrades. We may have to go with a standard product,” he said.

Steve Ellison, a board member, concurred.

“I’m comfortable we’re going to be on track,” he said.

 

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