‘26,000 bucks a door is just a hard pill to swallow’: delinquent renovations of the Whatcom County Jail / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic to access the YouTube video of the Whatcom County Council March 12, 2019 meeting.

March 20, 2019 Dena Jensen

County Council Member Rud Browne expressed the sentiment twice at the Whatcom County Council March 12, 2019 regular meeting during the Council committee reports segment near the end of the meeting. One exact quote was: “Yeah, so anyway, anyway, so, I just, 26,000 bucks a door is just a hard pill to swallow.”

His statements were regarding information which had been shared by Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, both at a daytime County Council committee meeting and during the evening Council meeting, that the low construction bid for replacing hardware and doors in the Whatcom County Jail had come in at just under $4.25 million. Both Council Member Satpal Sidhu and Executive Louws highlighted the fact that this amount could be translated to $26,000 per door.

The reason I am writing this piece is certainly not to reinforce what County Executive Louws said both during the daytime March 12, committee meeting and during the Council meeting that night. Unlike Executive Louws, I do not feel it is appropriate to belabor how expensive this all is because we aren’t building a new jail, as if the act of stalling these renovations for so many years in the anticipation of getting a new jail, as the Executive has acknowledged doing, did not play a huge part in such things as new doors, fire sprinkler systems, or smoke evacuation systems eliciting a hefty price tag now. Still, it is the case that Executive Louws continues to blame the high costs primarily on the absence of approval of a new jail facility.

Here is a related comment of Executive Louws from the March 12, County Council Finance and Administrative Services Committee meeting:

“Just as an aside, I mentioned this before, but the Mortenson Construction Cost Index from Seattle, which is what our cost estimators use from first quarter of 2012, when I became executive, to fourth quarter of 2018, construction costs have then gone up 35%. So, we’ve lost a lot of, a lot of opportunity. If you wanted to look at it, is, if $200 million was reality, is what I said in 2012 and 2013 with the jail and everything, you add 35% to that, we’re at $270 million for the same amount of work seven years later. “

The reason, in fact, I am bringing this recent information about the jail renovations to light is so that we do continue to pay attention to the costs on these delinquent repairs and the way the bid process is being handled by the Executive office. There have been doubts and concerns, for years, about the price tag and placement of the proposed larger jail in Ferndale. And we know that, as in the case of the 2015 Whatcom Couty Jail mailer, Executive Louws has already exercised questionable judgement in his pursuit of a new bigger jail in Ferndale.

Meanwhile, the doors at the existing jail won’t technically cost $26,000 each. Executive Louws explained that, “Our engineers who put the cost estimates together projected the cost of the, this job at $2.8 million plus logistical costs on top of it.” Council Member Sidhu noted that doors have to be removed, jams rebuilt, within an environment at the existing jail that requires security to the degree that each tool or piece of trash, etc. all have to be accounted for.

At the March 12, evening Council meeting, Council Member Browne, who had not been at the Finance and Adminstrative Services Committee meeting during the day, and who had some suggestions for the Executive and County staff in an effort to help propose a way that lower construction bids could be obtained, did have reason to be at least a bit surprised at a $4.25 million price tag.

A couple years back, the Snohomish County architecture firm, design2 LAST, had been retained by Whatcom County to perform building assessments for needed renovations of the existing Whatcom County Jail. The firm had created a report containing their assessments and cost estimates that had been completed in July of 2017.

Within those cost estimates were figures for replacing and/or repairing door hardware on commercial type doors and replacing all detention cell doors, including detention hardware. The price of both items together would amount to $1,743,116. According to Executive Louws, however, at the Finance session on March 12, he had mentioned that the bid was “for the replacement of 160 doors in the detention facility.” He did not mention the hardware for the commercial doors.

Click the graphic to access a copy of the July 17, 2017 design2 LAST “Building Assessment Studies and Cost Estimates for Capital Improvements at the Jail (Public Safety Building)”

The $2.8 million that the County engineers estimated for the job of replacing 160 cell doors (without the logistical and administrative costs that helped drive the full price of the low bid to $4.25 million) is a bit over double the price represented in design2 LAST’s estimate of $1.35 million.

It’s a sizable jump. Such unexpected increases do happen sometimes, both as a result of significant time passing (since there can be changes such as new codes and requirements for the job) and the review of the work in more detail by those who are bidding on the job. But also, as Council Member Browne suggested, it could be the result of lack of competition obtained by the bid process, and/or of the lack of expertise/experience, related to the type of job, of those placing the bids.


Below you will find, first, a transcription of remarks related to the jail renovations made by County Executive Louws at the March 12, 2019 Finance and Administrative Services Committee meeting, and following that, a transcription of a portion of the discussion between County Council Members and Executive Louws regarding this topic at the County Council meeting that night:

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws (at the March 12, 2019 County Council Finance and Administrative Services Committee meeting):

“Thank you Mr. Chair it’s good to be here today. I do have three discussion items I’d like to bring to your attention. First I would like to say that we have received bids on the jail door replacement project. As you know the engineers estimates were for 2.8 million plus logistical issues related to that, which were not included in their estimate. We received two bids back from local firms.

“The low bid was for $4.25 million, just a little bit lower than 4.25. That’s for the replacement of 160 doors in the detention facility. It’s about 26,000 a door. We’re going to be asking for about $900,000 to augment the jail facility project budget. That will give us the ability to provide for that just under 4.25 million, a 15% contingency, plus administrative costs to manage product project on our end of it because we’re going to have to be shutting down cell blocks as we go through and make this happen. 

“Remodeling right now, as an aside, is not for the faint of heart. Costs are escalating on all aspects of remodels, whether it be a jail facility or whether it be any of our other existing facilities. Some of that is due to new code requirements a couple years ago that considerably increase the mechanical costs, that’s not applicable to this particular project. 

“But I think it’s a shot across the bow for us to pay attention to as we go into the next phase of the jail remodel which is going to include fire suppression and a few other projects. But the estimates that we’ve got a few years ago, I think, are extremely low as related to the costs and we truly do have millions of dollars worth of expenses coming up before us in a series of projects to bring our existing jail up to what I would consider to be safer standard than what it is today. 

“I’m not saying that to scare anybody, it’s just going to be a reality that we’re going to have to save and dedicate many millions of dollars to our existing facility, along with, we have a big courthouse bid that’s out right now and we still have ongoing challenges related to the Northwest Annex, related to state street and to the Civic Building. And what the code has done, is that if you go to a certain portion of remodel, it requires you bring the whole building up to current energy codes. That’s where a lot of your costs on the mechanical sides of things roll into and contribute to these cost indicators.

“Just as an aside, I mentioned this before but the Mortenson Construction Cost Index from Seattle, which is what our cost estimators use, from first quarter of 2012, when I became executive, to fourth quarter of 2018, construction costs have then gone up 35%. So, we’ve lost a lot of, a lot of opportunity. If you wanted to look at it, is, if $200 million was reality, is what I said in 2012 and 2013 with the jail and everything, you add 35% to that, we’re at $270 million for the same amount of work seven years later. 

“So, anyway, we’ve got those challenges ahead. We are going to be asking for Council approval of this contract because we do need to have the $900,000 in the project budget to make that happen. So, that will be coming to you in the next 2 to 4 weeks.” 

Portions of the discussion between County Council Members and Executive Louws related to the jail renovations at the March 12, 2019 Whatcom County Council Meeting:

Council Member Sidhu:

“We had a report from the County Executive, and I really want to share with people at home that the bid to replace the doors at the jail came to $4.25 million and that translates to $26,000 per door. Now there are several reasons for that, is that the construction climate and this job not being a common type of job that every contractor wants to jump on it. And the doors have to be taken out, first the jams and everything and have to be rebuilt and at the same time it’s a secure environment where every tool, every waste, everything has to be accounted for and watched over and all this. So that does add to the cost. $4.25 million translates to 84,000 man hours or 40 man years of work. I just wanted to bring this point home that not making any decision is also a decision and also can be expensive. 

“So we are going to, this bid or the contract will come up to the council in next few weeks.”

Council Member Sidhu mentioned a couple other things the Finance and Administrative Services Committee heard about from the County Executive. 

Then, Council Member Browne spoke:

“I’d just like to make a comment. I am sorry I was not at the Finance session this morning. But, is that confirmed that the doors are 26,000 bucks apiece? [no answer audible]. I’d like to offer a suggestion. I assume you’ve put that out to bid for anybody who wished to respond to it. Given the sheer size of the contract, I’d like to suggest that we spend or someone spends a day Googling for other contracts that have been released in the US in the last couple of years and find out who the vendors are, and make sure that those vendors hav been given an opportunity to bid, because 26,000 bucks a door is, it’s seems like a, it’s a hard number to swallow. So, and I don’t want to in anyway suggest the County Executive or the staff have not done their best with the tools that they have.”

Executive Louws:

“This is County Executive Louws. Thank you for the suggestion. Our engineers who put the cost estimates together projected the cost of the, this job at $2.8 million plus logistical costs on top of it. And that of course, that’s just the estimate at that particular time.  

“We had two very quality contractors in Whatcom County bid on it. They’re both local contractors, the bids were, I don’t know, 6, $700,000 apiece [Editor’s Note:it is unclear if Executive Louws meant to say “apiece” or “apart.” Since no other reference to anything is made for which the contractors bid in the realm of $700,000, the context of the sentence seems to suggest he may have meant that the bids were around $700,000 apart], with a low bidder, um, I’m gonna say presumed low bidder, but we’re proceeding with putting the contracts together with Dawson Construction, good, good local company, for 4 point, just under $4.25 million. 

“And I had an opportunity to talk with the council at Finance Committee that, what we’re doing is expensive, it’s probably twice the cost, over twice the cost of what it would be if we were putting these doors into a new facility, when we didn’t have inmates that we needed to monitor and manage along with it. We’re also going to put a 15% contingency on it because we don’t exactly know what we’re going to get into. But on the long term this is the reality of where we were at in our existing facility.

“It’s going to cost us hundreds of thousands if not millions more to be able to work in this facility than it is doing another facility. Even if the jail was bigger than what it was right now, it would give us more of an opportunity to close wings down, cell blocks down, to work on it. It would be of a financial benefit to us but we’re constrained. We’re to the point we need to do this.

“I trust that the people, that the bid we went out, we’ve discussed this already to make sure that we’ve got the information out as wide and as broadly as we possibly can, as relating to the, to the doors and the door hardware. So, but I’ll bring that to Rob Nye. I don’t know if Rob’s here tonight. I don’t believe he is. But, we’ll discuss it one more time. 

“But we are going to be bringing the contract forward, asking for the council to transfer another $900,000 into the jail fund so that we can fully pay for this particular piece of work.”

Council Member Browne:

“Yeah, and, and, I have no question about the integrity or the competence of the contractor you just mentioned. They’re have been a fixture in the county for years. The, I’ll just say that I’m doing a particular project, myself, at the moment, and the bids I’ve got as a one off project, the low bid is around $12,000. The high bid is over $50,000 for basically exactly the same product. And the way I found the $12,000 bid, which looks like a very competent, very qualified contractor, is I spent hours Googling different phrases trying to come up with vendors and I stumbled across this one.”

Executive Louws:

“At this particular time we’ve put the bid, we’ve put the bid specs out. We’ve followed the Washington State bid laws and the bid procedures that we need to do and for us to basically go into this and to rework the specifications, I believe we probably be challenged by both contractors, and that, and uh we, we either need to award this bid or reject this bid and then go beyond that. We can’t modify it midstream, from my understanding of construction bid process, as public process that we’re in right now. But good comments. I mean we’re trying to do everything that we can to drive the cost down. This has been a very difficult project to scope, even this first phase. And we’re well into the second phase, which is involving a lot of the mechanical and safety features of the existing jail, which we’re going to have to start putting millions of dollars away for that also.

Council Member Browne:

And where I’m also going with this is, if even that search comes up with ideas that the contractors we want, that have responded could look at and say, ‘Oh I can actually do a better job for you with less money, and still make the same margin – “

Executive Louws:

“Both of the contractors that have responded to this bid are of the quality that if they knew that that was there, I believe they would bring that forward.”

Council Member Browne:

“Yeah, so anyway, anyway, so, I just, 26,000 bucks a door is just a hard pill to swallow.”


Here is a link to the the audio for the March 12, 2019 Finance and Administrative Services Committee meeting: http://whatcom.granicus.com/player/clip/89?view_id=1

Here is a link to the segment of the YouTube video of the March 12, 2019 Whatcom County Council meeting that includes discussion by Council Members and Executive Louws of the renovations of the doors at the existing Whatcom County Jail facility : https://youtu.be/BVOLkjdJYWk?t=6364

One thought on “‘26,000 bucks a door is just a hard pill to swallow’: delinquent renovations of the Whatcom County Jail / Noisy Waters Northwest

  1. Pingback: Timeline material on the delinquent proposed life safety renovations for the Whatcom County Jail / Noisy Waters Northwest | noisy waters northwest

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